Matters of great import, whether of immediate or more long-term concern, could wait, must wait, for Liz had been preparing a meal and now had it ready to eat, a fine combination of elk stew and stove-browned flatbread made from the starch of some of the last of the spring beauty roots they’d dug that past year, and Kilgore’s attention was entirely captured by the food. A hot meal is going to look awfully good to anyone after several days of hard climbing through a raging storm while living on beef jerky and energy bars, and Bud had certainly never been one to refuse a good meal, under any circumstances.
Everyone was quiet for a while as they ate, Kilgore helping himself to seconds and thirds as the others satisfied themselves with one bowl and a patty of bread, no one grudging him the extra, after his long, cold journey. Even Einar made a pretty good effort at eating, delighting Liz with the fact that he didn’t have to be subjected to repeated reminders just to keep him from setting aside and neglecting his stew after a bowl or two, and when after the main meal was finished and she began spreading Nutella on three pieces of bread she’d stashed aside, she was sure she saw the faintest hint of a smile in his eyes, some of the distance beginning to leave them.
Liz, little Will sitting on her lap as he tasted with great fascination his first bit of Nutella, turned to Kilgore. “Tell me about Susan. How’s the business going? What have the two of you been up to?”
Despite the remarkable level of control normally exerted by the tracker, its façade so seamless as to mimic nonchalance and even, much of the time, a careless ease which often out others off their guard, a shadow seemed to pass across his face at the asking, and Liz could not help but wonder whether it was because of the prospect of Juni, an outsider, hearing of Susan and thus increasing her risk, or whether something else might be at work. The next moment Bud was back to his usual blustery self, however, Liz’s concern all but forgotten.
“Oh, she’s busy with all the usual stuff, greenhouses, grandkids, her son had another one a few weeks back, you know. A little girl, so she’s been spending a lot of time up there at the house helping out with the other kids, and we got a new greenhouse put up in between storms this winter, too. Hasn’t snowed nearly so much down there as it has up here, so we’ve been able to do so some things like that. And she’s started giving classes again up at the place, this time on medicinal wild plants, how to identify ‘em, gather and store them, and turn them into medicine. They just did a bunch of batches of that cottonwood stuff that’s supposed to help with frostbite and infection and all.”
“Balm of Gilead?”
“Yep, that’s the stuff. Says she wants everybody to know how to make that, and a bunch more things, and the classes are her way of seeing more folks become independent, if only in that one little way.”
Juni seemed to take a keen interest in the conversation at that point. “Balm of Gilead—isn’t that the stuff you use up here for so many things? You used to work for Susan, didn’t you? Is that where you learned to make it?”
“Actually…” Liz responded slowly to a question clearly addressed to her, “I first learned it from Einar, a very long time ago when he’d ended up with some pretty serious frostbite and needed to be up on his feet again as soon as possible. He told me how to find and collect the buds, and supervised the first batch as I made it. That was the first time.”
Now it was Kilgore’s turn to chime in, laughing heartily. “Einar, needing to get back on his feet? No way! How’d you manage that? That implies he was off ‘em at some point, which I cannot for the life of me really picture, unless you’d rolled a boulder on top of him and pinned him to the ground for a week or two. When was this?”
“Oh, he was off his feet alright,” Liz replied, “though not for very long. Second time the two of us ever met, back when I was staying at my uncle’s house down by the river… It was after the great snowmobile heist, and a trek up through two mountain passes in the dead of winter, without good boots or clothes, and without any food…”
“Sometime, I would like to hear the story,” said Juni. “Cleary there’s a lot that all of us don’t know about the things that went on early in this search!”
“Best keep it that way,” Einar growled, effectively shutting down the entire thing. He still hadn’t touched his Nutella-spread bread, and Liz grabbed for it, threatening to give it to Will if he didn’t start eating, soon. Which left Einar to snatch the treat quickly out of her reach, reacting with mock horror and indignation.
“I’m saving it! Stuff like this is so rare up here, a fella can’t just go eating it all up without proper consideration.”
“And how long is ‘proper consideration’ likely to take?” Snorted Kilgore, making a swipe at the disputed bread, himself, but missing just as Liz had. “An hour? Several months, more likely. You might as well just go ahead and frame the thing, put it up on the doggone wall so you can enjoy looking at it while you go ahead and finish starving. That’s what you’d like to do, isn’t it? Just keep it up there as a reminder of sorts.”
“What I’d like,” he tucked the bread up in the rafters behind where he was sitting, in danger only of the raven pilfering it, unless someone wanted to cross him to get at it, “is for all of you to back off and quit trying to steal my food. Not good when somebody tries to steal your food.” Which none of them had any real intention of doing, but the raven had other ideas, taking advantage of the momentary distraction on the part of everyone in the cabin to make a wild flight at the ceiling, grabbing Einar’s prized Nutella bread and making off with it to a spot behind the water barrel where he believed he had some chance of eating it in peace. Not so, Einar having made a dive for him before he’d even quite settled on the ground, retrieved all but a small chunk of the bread and secured it once more in the rafters, this time sliding a large chip of granite in to shield it from further predation.
Despite their best efforts Liz, Juni and particularly Kilgore were laughing aloud at the scene which had just played itself out, all—aside from the tracker, who couldn’t care less who noticed—trying hard to stifle their laughter when they saw Einar glaring at them out of the corner of his eye.
“See happens when you don’t eat it promptly? Raven jumps right in and takes his share, and it serves you right, too.”
“Yep, I know it does. But still intend on trying to protect the stuff. Gonna need it.”