Watching the sun rise that morning, brush the distant timber and work its way down towards the shelter, Liz knew spring had arrived. Out checking the trapline with Will on her back, she walked easily on top of the hard-crusted snowbanks that lingered several feet deep in the shaded areas beneath the spruces, but elsewhere, in the more open areas, the rot and ruin were apparent, snowpack slowly sinking into the soil. That morning, for the first time since the cold had settled in so many months ago, the breeze that breathed up out of the canyon felt almost warm, carrying with it new and delightful smells of exposed soil and awakening plants. Will, too, noticed the change, winter child scenting spring for the first time, and Liz could feel him squirming on her back, craning his neck to better catch the breeze.
“What do you think about that, little guy? New stuff to explore out there? Things are starting to change, for sure. Won’t be too long now before you’re crawling on the grass and helping me dig spring beauty roots, will it?”
Will answered with a delighted squeal as he pushed with his toes and tried mightily to launch himself right out of Liz’s hood, not discouraged by his lack of immediate success, continuing to try. “Hold on there, for a minute. I know you want to get out and move, but you’re just not big enough yet to keep up with me on the trapline. You’ll have to keep growing for a year or two, first. Just be patient, let me finish this loop and then we’ll go back home where you can scurry around the shelter and use up some of that energy you’ve got so much of this morning!”
Nothing in the first five snares Liz checked, no sign of animal activity near them at all, save a few rabbit droppings in the brush, but at the sixth snare, her persistence was rewarded by a large rabbit that had tripped one of Einar’s spring triggers. The creature’s fur was not quite as nice as those she’d been used to seeing all winter—another sign that spring was near—but it appeared to have been eating well, and would provide them a good meal.
“Too bad your daddy’s not here to share it with us, though,” she lamented to Will. “I’ll make a nice stew and there really would be plenty for all of us, especially since you’re not eating it directly yet. You’re well on your way to that though, aren’t you? With your three teeth, and more soon to show up. Yep, getting big. You’ll be helping us set snares and prepare furs, before long now.”
Will responded with more gurgling and giggling as he tried once again to launch himself from Liz’s hood and go explore for himself the wide, fascinating world beyond. Soon. Soon enough, and then he’d doubtlessly be wandering like his father, with his father, she could only hope, if the man would only return from his latest adventure in one piece, and stay that way for a while. The lack of information bothered her, the waiting and the not knowing. At least there had not been further air activity. Had he been found and…she could hardly bring herself to say it. Captured. Had he been captured, well, she could only assume they would have brought in a helicopter to take him out of there, and no helicopter had appeared, so she could hope he was safe. From the people on the rim, at least. The way things looked to her, they were hardly the greatest threat to his safe return.
Einar had always been patient man, when patience was required. Had no problem spending the better part of three days immobile in a little dugout beneath a slab of granite or under a grass hummock waiting for the enemy to come into position, for the time to be right, but he was beginning to grow dreadfully short with those two bat scientists and their maps. Seemingly not content with their first look they’d got the things out again after a long, drawn-out pause for a snack and some coffee, which was prepared over a camp stove and with no particular haste, and now crouched there together not fifteen yards from him with maps spread out in a large rock slab, pointing, gesturing and apparently planning the activities of the coming day.
Einar hunched his shoulders against a stiff breeze that seemed to be following the creek—smelled of spring, he could not help but notice, of green, growing things, even if it didn’t feel very spring-like—clamped his jaw hard to prevent the intruders overhearing the rattling of his teeth, and waited. Might have chanced a careful exit from the area, had he not been so stiff and clumsy already from sitting immobile in the cold. As it was, he could not risk such a move. Would probably stumble over something and give himself away. Well. No problem with waiting, so long as the men would remain alone, and were not waiting for reinforcements from the rim. At least they did not seem preoccupied with the strange, wild-looking man they had surprised from his sleep. Weren’t even talking about him, though the older of the pair did pull his eyes away from the map to take the occasional wary glance at the surrounding woods from time to time, as if half sensing that he was being watched. Einar looked away, not wanting to strengthen that notion to the point that the man would get nervous and come looking for him.
Wind was gusting so hard now that he could no longer make out many of the words exchanged by the men, but it appeared they were still talking about bats, and about their need to get up on the opposite wall and inspect the small caves whose entrances showed plainly there, difficult to reach from either direction. In which case you really ought to get moving, hadn’t you? Never going to find any bats just camping out here along the creek all day. Almost as if having heard him—Einar crouched a bit lower, half expecting them to start looking his way—the men began folding and stowing maps, put the stove away and set out on a winding course that took them through the willows and towards the far canyon wall. Heading up, it appeared, to seek some of the caves near that rim. Good news for Einar, a possible reprieve, though he did not yet entirely trust it. Could still be men coming from the camp. And the departure of the scientists—though he did not at all get this sense—might be a ruse designed to lure him out of hiding so he could be taken. Must not move immediately, and he did not, waiting motionless while the crunching, swishing footsteps of the scientists grew more distant and the sun crept further down into the canyon. Still not reaching him. Still awfully cold.
Fifteen minutes later Einar had assured himself that no one was coming, that the biologists were, indeed, headed up the opposite wall—he could get the occasional glimpse of them fighting their way up through the oak brush towards a steep couloir, if he looked closely—and he could move on. Travel was slow, cautious, Einar warming slowly as he went, and it was with great relief that he met the sun when finally it peeked up over the rim and flooded into the cold, black recesses of the canyon. He wanted to stop, revel in its brilliance and warmth, but did not. Must make better time, leave behind anyone who might be searching for him and find a place where he could safely begin the return journey to Liz.
An hour later, he had made significant progress, and had as of yet seen no sign of pursuit. Down there the ground was warmer, more exposed, snow remaining only in icy, compacted banks and here and there on a shady slope, and as Einar walked, the smells of sun-warmed soil rose to meet him, combining deliciously with the impossibly sweet odor of cottonwood buds about to open and reveal the season’s new leaves. Spotting a small branch that had been blown down in the wind Einar stooped and picked it up, pressing one of the buds between his fingers and smearing the sticky orange resin that oozed from between its layers and beaded in amber-colored droplets on the outside. Balm of Gilead, a powerful antiseptic and healer which he had used so long ago to save several of his frostbitten toes, and had found immeasurably helpful a number of times since. He wanted to stop and collect as many of the buds as he could find, carry then back to Liz, but the pauses seemed an unwise use of time, under present circumstances. He settled for stripping the small branch of its bounty and stashing the buds in a pocket of his pack. Better than nothing.
Further downstream, moving with even more caution and keeping well inside the dense brush as he neared the canyon mouth, Einar came to a tiny meadow where the recently-receded snow had left in its wake a brilliant carpet of green, dotted here and there with the brilliant and delicate yellow of blooming avalanche lilies. Listening, neither seeing nor sensing danger, he dropped to his belly in the brush at the edge of the clearing and lying there ate the vibrant new grass like a winter-hungry rabbit or deer desperate for a taste of fresh greens, and no less grateful for them than one of these creatures would have been, grinning, wishing to jump up and do a delighted dance around the perimeter of the meadow, but restraining himself. Had to keep concealed, and had more distance to cover, too, before he could find the roundabout path that would eventually take him back to his family without risking their discovery.
Better be moving on, then. Had to get back to Liz, tell her that he had found spring, and that it was coming.