That night, storm finally moving out and the stars burning with a cold, unblinking intensity in the clear, frigid sky, Einar slept well and soundly for several hours despite the chill, his decision made and mind more at rest than it had been in some time. Later the dreams came, jarred him from sleep and left him half wishing he could reverse his agreement and seek solace in the harsh joys of cold and deprivation which had always seen him through such difficulties and kept his feet on the ground when they threatened to sweep him away, but instead he turned to Liz, arm around her and chin resting on the top of her head, and closed his eyes. The dreams would pass, life would pass, all things would pass, but for the moment he was here with this woman who was his wife and the child they had together brought into the world, and he drifted off to sleep with tears in his eyes and a determination to be present with them in this life for as long and in as full a sense as he was able. Not going to be easy, but none of his paths had been easy, and this one—quieted his own breathing, listening for little Will’s, finding it—was certainly as worthy as any upon which he had ever embarked, and far more than most of them.
Morning, chill getting to Einar despite the sleeping bag and Liz’s presence, and not wanting to disturb her he crept out to make a fire. Plenty of wood from the night before, and soon he had a small blaze going, crouching over it, warming himself and trying to plan the day’s work. Dizzy, head feeling all light and strange and limbs cramping up in the oddest places so that he had to keep shifting position—arches of his feet, hands as well as legs—muscles not cooperating at all, and he knew that while Liz had possessed the best of intentions in insisting so strongly that he go on eating mug after mug of her split pea soup, he’d managed to get too much of the stuff and was noticing the effects. Too much starch. Needed more protein and fat to help ease him back into things, into eating, and instead of raiding the food bag at that point as someone else might have done—thought didn’t even occur to him—Einar banked the fire, took a few things from his pack and set off in search of some four-footed protein.
Not much going on out there on that cold, frigid morning, most creatures still hunkered down in burrows and brushy shelters against a slight easing of the chill, but the rabbits were out. Einar saw their tracks, trails, in fact, where already several animals had passed on the same path over the newly fallen snow, leaving behind the distinct markings of their hind feet as well as droppings and the bits of flaked-off dry vegetation—curls of grass, a brittle, shattered leaf here and there, a shred of willow or other bark—which told him the rabbits had been finding things to eat. A good place, it appeared, to set some snares, stick a few twigs in the snow at a narrow part of the trail which formed a natural chokepoint, and check back in the morning to see if he’d had any success.
Taking two of the ready-made locking snares—gift of Bud and Susan—from his pocket Einar did just this, feeling the spool of wire he’d also slipped in there and determining to come back to this trail later that day and make a few more snares of his own, these with triggers and branch-springs which would, upon release, quickly sweep the animal up off the ground and eliminate the need for locking to prevent its escape. Good for the future, these snares he was setting, but he wanted a rabbit now. Needed one. Had a very distinct feeling that he couldn’t wait until the following morning.
Following the trail, off to one side so as not to mar it with his own tracks, Einar kept his eyes sharp for any sign of movement, for the mottled brown fur that would reveal to him a potential meal, and when he did come on the rabbit it saw him, took off but froze not six feet past the spot where he had, himself, frozen still in the snow. Thinking itself invisible now that it had stopped moving the rabbit did not budge as Einar eased closer, careful not to direct his eyes or even his thoughts too pointedly at the animal, lest it sense his intention and take off in the zigzagging course that might have saved it from a hungry fox or coyote. Einar wished he had a spear, or, lacking that, a bola which he might have thrown to tangle and secure his quarry. Lacking either of these at the moment—he’d brought the pistol, but had no intention of wasting a shot on a rabbit, or of alerting potential enemies with the noise—he balanced the hefty section of pine branch that rested in his right hand. A rabbit stick, and he smiled at the thought of what Liz might do with the thing, visually measured the distance between himself and the rabbit, and let it fly.
A solid hit, animal knocked two feet to the side where it flailed a bit, kicked twice and was still. Hurrying in to pounce on his quarry as if half afraid it might get to its feet and take off again—might have been able to secure it even had it been able to do that, soft, deep snow greatly inhibiting rabbits’ speed and making them more vulnerable to longer-legged predators—Einar crouched there beside it in the snow, lifting, inspecting, rabbit quite thoroughly dead and a fairly large one, too, plenty of meat. Tucking the animal into his shirt—very warm against his skin, and he shivered at the contrast—Einar retraced his steps back to the shelter, only then stopping to clean the rabbit. Did not want to lose or leave any of the refuse from this process, intending to use everything they did not eat as bait in the pursuit of larger creatures. Not immediately necessary, perhaps, given the abundance of supplies they’d brought with them and the several hundred pounds of moose meat frozen and awaiting their return in the canyon, but his instincts as a hunter and long experience with conditions under which obtaining the next meal was seldom a sure or a quick thing dictated that he must always think ahead.
Those last few hundred yards before the shelter were somewhat difficult ones for Einar, legs cramping up to a degree that made his progress over the numerous downed, snow-buried trees that lay crisscrossed on the ridge above their sheltered little basin quite a challenge, but he made it, wishing he might crawl those last few yards, but keeping on his feet. Rabbit cleaned, skinned and ready for cooking he did crawl into the shelter, standing probably still possible had he really given it all his effort, but legs barely responding anymore. Liz, fortunately, did not notice his predicament, as the parachute flap which served as door necessitated that one crouch quite low to enter, besides which she was busy doing something over the fire. The odor left Einar little doubt. Moose stew! Guess this rabbit wouldn’t have been strictly necessary, would it? Still glad I went. Fellow has to keep making an effort, doesn’t he?
Liz glanced up, glad to see that he had returned. “Where did you go?”
He held up the skinned rabbit. “Went after some breakfast. And to see about trapping possibilities, now that the storm’s over. Set some snares.”
“Want me to add your rabbit to the stew, or should we save him for later?”
“Figure we can just roast him over the fire, this time. Know we lose a little juice and stuff that way, as opposed to boiling, but with a rabbit being so very lean, it’s not like we’re losing a lot of fat that we would have otherwise used, or anything. Just sounds good that way. Then we can turn the bones and scraps into soup for another time.”
“Sure! It won’t hurt to have both to work on, today.” What she did not mention was the fact that she was entirely delighted to see him taking some interest in food again, and actually planning to eat more than she had intended to offer him. Could only help. Like the soup must have helped the previous day, if he’d had the energy to go out hunting that morning…
A misconception which was soon laid to rest when Einar attempted to stand, and fell. She was at his side, but he waved her away, gave it another try and this time managed, but with obvious difficulty.
“What’s wrong? Did you get hurt out there this morning?”
“No, it’s ok. Just my legs. Muscles giving me some trouble. Your stew will help, and so will the rabbit.”
“Just your legs…?”
“Uh…that’s the most noticeable, I guess! Affects everything. Not having any trouble with breathing yet, and shouldn’t, if I take it slow and kind of stick to fat and protein. Like your soup.”
“I’ve never seen you take anything slow!”
“Sure, when I take days stalking something…or someone. That’s slow. And getting used to sharing a shelter with someone. That was real slow!”
He dodged as she playfully swung the rabbitstick with which he had taken their breakfast--hadn't even realized she'd seen the thing--smiled, lowered himself heavily back to the ground beside the fire and used a stick to lift the lid from the bubbling pot, gratefully inhaling its steam and handing a pinecone to little Will, who had smelled the stew, himself, got curious and crawled out of the sleeping bag.