Sunrise, and Einar crouched on the ledge, largely snow-free after the scouring of the wind and two days of sunshine, staring out over the cabin, the timber surrounding it and letting his eyes wander all the way down to the river valley far below, where already patches of bare, brown ground were beginning to show amongst the oak scrub on the lower slopes of the ridge which rose opposite theirs. Was looking as though they might be in for a bit of an early spring, and the prospect left him itching to get out and start trapping that river. While the ice still held, and before the pelts of the beaver and muskrat he would be seeking began to lose quality with the warming weather.
Knew he might be fooling himself about the likelihood of an early thaw; the months which in a typical winter were the snowiest still lay ahead of them, three such months, to be exact, and he was well aware that it was not at all unusual to see serious snowfall right up through the end of May up as high as they were, on occasion, or even into June. Yet something in the soft breeze that sighed up from the valley spoke to him of spring, and he was even sure, as the first rays of the sun spilled over some far-distant peak or ridgeline to begin flooding the valley with its golden brilliance, that he could smell the subtle, living scent of damp, warming soil carried to him over that great distance.
The smell made him hungry, so hollow and hungry inside all of a sudden that his mouth gaped open for a second at the force of the thing and he pressed an arm across his stomach to still its cramping, telling himself that it was somewhat ridiculous, this reaction of his, because he didn’t eat soil, never had and probably never would, unless you count the rich, black swamp muck that lurks at the bottoms of warm, shallow-water marshes, just teeming with life in both past and present tense, several stages of decay and the things which fed and grew and lived on it all bunched together there in remarkable abundance, black, gooey concentrated life, offering itself to help sustain a man for a time when all his other options had been exhausted and he was pinned down several days too many by heavy enemy presence in the area, all around him, searching, searching and soon to find… But that was another matter, and he didn’t want to think about it just then, shook his head to clear it of the uninvited images and went back to his study of the valley. Place didn’t look the same, sun having crept higher during his mental flight into swamp-land, erasing many of the shadows which had given the place definition only minutes before and creating others, revealing new things and nearly blinding him with its brilliance reflecting from all that snow.
He squinted, pulled out the binoculars and searched until once again he located the river where it peeked out ice-locked and snow-banked from the valley floor, following it for as long as the terrain would allow him, first up-valley and then down, searching for sign that the place had been visited by anything other than the busy little winter mammals he hoped to find inhabiting its snowy fastness, but seeing nothing, no telltale ski trail--amazing how visible those things could be, continuous snakes of snow-shadow clearly showing themselves over the course of miles; he’d seen them both from the ground and from the air--to give away the recent passage of anything human, no snowshoe track, and he was glad, knew the place was to be theirs. They would have to be careful, very careful to keep open-ground trails to a minimum down there, as any such would of course show up as sharply to aerial observers as the anticipated ski or snowshoe trails would have to him from his high perch, and they could not risk thus being discovered, sparking the interest of someone who might get to wondering just who was back there in the middle of nowhere wearing in such a trail in the middle of winter, and take it upon themselves to investigate further, but he believed they could do it, mostly keeping their direct approaches to the river to those areas where the timber stretched down to its banks or nearly so, and the prospect excited him. He was ready to get out and trapping!
Probably ready to get back to the cabin for the moment, too, for he was dreadfully cold and had been very nearly since he’d first sat down on that ledge, chill of snow and rock seeping into him so that he could no longer hold the binoculars steady enough to get anything close to a clear picture, and when he tried to rise, he all but toppled over forwards right over that ledge. Would have been a quick way back to the cabin--he’d tried it before, accidentally; good thing the snow had been deep and soft beneath him--but not necessarily a good one, and relieved at having caught himself he sat back down, rubbing cold-stiff legs in an attempt to restore to them some circulation and a useful degree of mobility. Shivering, laughing at himself even as he felt a slight twinge of something like fear at his near-complete inability to resist the advances of the cold--scrawny critter like you could just up and freeze solid on a morning such as this if you didn’t watch it--he finally got himself back to his feet, a bit more steady this time, legs supporting his weight, and started down. Just in time, too--for reasons other than the fact that he was freezing and nearing the point of immobility if he didn’t get some blood flowing--for he could see smoke beginning to rise from the chimney as he negotiated the steep, slick descent, a sure sign that people were beginning to be up and stirring down there.
Bud and Susan were set to leave later in the day, planning to camp one night on their way up to the ridge to make the journey easier on Bud’s leg, and Liz would want him around at least part of the day. Something about being good hosts, and all of that. Short distance from the base of the cliff to the cabin but he took it slowly, reluctant, somehow, to be around the other people and wishing he might have spent a bit more time up on the ledge, watching, pondering. Later.
Breakfast was nearly ready by the time Einar made his way back to the tunnel and in, Susan's last big cooking experiment before taking her leave of the place, and this time she had outdone herself with a big batch of cornmeal pancakes, enhanced with powdered eggs and served up hot with thin slices of skillet fried elk steak seasoned with garlic, salt and sage. Over everything was poured real maple syrup that she had carried up as a powder--several packets of it she had left with Einar and Liz to enjoy later--and everyone was gathered around, sniffing hungrily at the treat when Einar popped his head in through the tunnel.
"Just in time for our farewell breakfast," Kilgore boomed, pulling Einar to his feet and brushing some of the snow from his clothing. "Figured maybe you couldn't stand one more minute of us and had taken off to the timber 'till we disappeared for good, but here you are, brought back by the smell of breakfast. Smart fella. Smarter than I had you figured for, let me tell you, because my bride's cooking is something to behold, even in less-than-civilized environs such as the wild and remote abode in which we now find ourselves...especially under such circumstances, I ought to say, for it is here that she really shines. Come and feast!"
In response to which Susan landed him a playful swat with the back of the fork she was using to flip the pancakes, threatening more if he didn't watch his words. "They're just corncakes, but hopefully ought to hold us all well into the day. And to be fair, I think this particular abode is a good deal more civilized than some I've entered, down in civilization. "Aw now, don't go accusing us of being civilized, or I might have to move us on out of here and go on the run again just to disprove the accusation. Civilization is for the valleys."
"No offense intended, I was just referring to the fact that you've got this place well set up for cooking, a very practical and functional kitchen, and that's a good thing! A very good thing, that has no doubt made your wife very happy."
Einar gave a conciliatory nod and Liz smiled, yes, indeed, she was quite happy with the kitchen, with the cabin and with life in general, for the most part. Now if only Einar would share the morning feast, which, remembering how good the scent of sun-warmed soil had smelled to him earlier, leaving him all but ready to head down to the valley with a spoon and dig in, he was finding himself rather inclined to do.