28 May, 2014

28 May 2014

 High on the ridge, in a spot where he could look down and see the dark cluster of timber which he knew concealed the shelter, Einar finally found the sign for which he had been searching.  The elk, it seemed, had stuck to the ridge crest where wind had scoured from the rocky landscape a good bit of the snow, making travel an easier and far less exhausting prospect than it would have been some distance down either slope. 

Though the tracks appeared to have been made in snow that was somewhat soft at the time and not in the frigid early hours of that morning, they were recent enough to catch his interest and give him hope of a successful hunt should he return to the ridge at the right time.  Late afternoon, by all appearances, and Einar started back down the ridge excited about returning later in the day to wait for the elk to put in an appearance.  Knew he would be reluctant to use a bullet in the taking of the animal—more due to the noise it would make than to the fact that it was an irreplaceable resource under current conditions—but was pretty sure the situation warranted it.  Though he hated to admit as much even to himself, he somewhat doubted his present ability to hurl an atlatl dart with sufficient force to bring down a large animal, besides which he would have to start from scratch in making the atlatl, darts and dart heads, and very much hoped to bring in a significant supply of meat before he would have had time to craft such weapons.  Could afford one shot from the rifle.  Chances were very remote that it would be heard either by anyone on the far rim or down in the canyon, considering the geography.

On the return trip Einar saw little sign of other game, a few rabbit droppings under an overhanging branch and a spruce cone which had recently been shredded by a squirrel being exceptions, further confirming the need to take a larger animal, and soon.  Well.  He’d already got that settled.  Was going elk hunting that afternoon, and hopefully would have success, or at least get a glimpse of the creature, if she had changed her route and habits.  He had to wonder what a lone elk was doing up so high, that early in the season.  Not a lot to eat, and travel remained difficult where deep banks of half-rotted snow remained under the timber.  The animal, he was reasonably certain by the size of its tracks, was female, yet nothing about that high, deadfall-choked country ought to prove attractive as calving grounds.  Guessed he would just have to wait and see, perhaps piece the story together from other sign he would see above the spot where he turned around on the ridge, or—hopefully—from observing the animal herself, just before he brought her home to feed his family. 

The prospect of thus providing buoyed his spirits and lent a bit of a spring to his step, which had before been seriously lagging, losing speed, and by the time the shelter—and the faint wisps of almost-invisible smoke from Liz’s breakfast fire—came into sight, he was almost bounding down the trail, dodging branches and aiming for the harder-crusted, cement-like snow of the sunnier areas, where he would not sink in and thus would leave little sign.  Liz met him at the door.

“Where have you been, so early?  Checking the trapline?”

“Nothing in the snares this morning.”

“That’s ok.  There will be tomorrow.  It’s been like that.  We still have some rabbit broth left, and some of the things from Bud and Susan.”

“That’s good, but guess what?”

Liz shrugged, and Einar scooped up Will, who had pulled himself to a standing position against the far wall, and was swaying on his feet, entirely unsupported, not far from walking. The little one squealed at the tough of his father’s icy hands, but it was not, Liz noted, a squeal of distress, but rather of delight.  Like father, like son.

“Saw elk sign up there on the ridge above where the traplie stops.  Real fresh.  Yesterday’s I would say, and I’m gonna head back up there in the afternoon and see if I can get us an elk.”

“Won’t it be awfully scrawny now, at the end of winter?”

“Not as scrawny as I am, and I’m still good for something!”

“Not funny…”

“Well, I thought it was.  This elk though, it won’t be as scrawny as the spruce needles and usnea lichen we’re going to be eating if we don’t get some serious meat, pretty soon!  Won’t be at its peak, for sure, but will keep us going.”

“Yes.  It will.  If you get this elk, make sure and come down to let me know so I can help you pack it out.  Ok?”

“Sure!  Unless I end up accidentally loading the entire critter up on my back and galumphing down the slope, before I have time to stop and think about it!”

“Ha!  Galumphing would be about right.  One galumph, and you’d be flat on your stomach in the snow with an elk on top of you and no way to get loose.  That would be one unique way to go, for sure, but how about let’s try and avoid it for now, ok?  I need somebody to help me tan the hide and turn part of it into a parka for Will, for next winter.”

“Ok  I’ll try and stick around for a while.  Just kidding about carrying that whole elk, anyway.  Couldn’t do that right now if I wanted to.”

“I know, but I think sometimes you forget.”

“Sometimes a person has to forget.  Sometimes, it’s the only way you can keep yourself going.”

“Sometimes.”  She wanted to say more, but did not, simply embracing him, glad he was back and knowing, if she had not known before, what a near thing it had been, his returning.  Was always a near thing, but this time, he’d been dancing on the edge of that canyon the entire way, on the edge of the abyss, and if he had forgotten, she had not.  Well.  Enough of that.  She let him go, returned to her breakfast preparations.  They must eat, and then there was an elk hunt to plan.

24 May, 2014

24 May 2014

Despite dreams which ordinarily would have jarred him from sleep and sent him scrambling out into the cold to keep vigil on some high ridge until the coming of daylight, Einar barely moved during the dark hours that night.  He was home, safe, for the time, in the little basin with his family safe and peacefully resting beside him, and some portion of his brain remembered that, and allowed him to sleep.  Liz also slept, relieved to have a night during which she did not have to keep waking and wondering where Einar might be, whether he was warm, had eaten, if he would see the morning.  In the night she was dimly aware of his restlessness, kept a hand on his shoulder in the hopes of providing him some measure of reassurance should he wake not knowing where he was.  She wanted to be closer to him, keep him warm, as he was quite obviously struggling with the cold even there in the shelter, but he kept startling and inching away whenever she tried it, so after a time she let him be, huddling half in and half out of the unzipped sleeping bag where for whatever reason he seemed to find the situation most tenable, parka pulled up haphazardly over one shoulder in an attempt to keep out some of the night chill. 

At least, Liz told herself, he had eaten a fair portion of the stew that evening, and would surely be in a better position for making it through the night than he had been over the past week and several days of his absence.  The food ought to help.  He had certainly needed it, had, much to her dismay, clearly lost more weight while out on the trail, despite his mention of moose meat and avalanche lilies whose roots he had almost obtained for food…  Almost.  She shook her head, moved a bit closer and was glad when this time he made no effort to increase the distance between them.

Morning, and Einar was up before daylight heading out on the trapline, feet dragging some despite his best efforts and body feeling heavy, legs reluctant to support him but a lightness in his heart as he watched the first golden fingers of the sun brush peaks still brilliantly white with lingering snow.  Good to be home.  No rabbits though, nothing in any of the snares, and he knew they’d be needing other food sources to supplement the occasional animal thus obtained.  Deer, elk and bighorns would be somewhat scrawny that time of year, having themselves just come through a hard winter, but they would still provide a good supply of meat, should he manage to find places where they were spending the spring.  This would require travel to a lower elevation, however, and he’d had quite enough travel for the moment, if more could be avoided. 

Wished he’d been in a position to bring back a significant portion of that moose meat.  Would have loaded a good sixty or eighty pounds of the stuff onto  his back and hauled it up the canyon, had it not been for his discovery and the need to evade a couple of bat scientists who likely as not had no intentions of pursuing him, in the first place…  Hadn’t been much of a choice though, as he’d had to assume he was being pursued, that the men had contacted others when they used the radio and perhaps—had they suspected the true identity of the strange wild man whose sleep they had disturbed—even passed the information on to the feds and reactivated the search.  Not a time to be loading one’s self down with moose meat. 

At least—he could be reasonably certain—his suspicions about a renewed search seemed to have been unfounded, as demonstrated by the blessed absence of renewed aircraft activity.  Seemed nearly certain that they would have seen things start to stir by then, had his presence been reported as something suspicious.  Still, reported or not, the encounter troubled him greatly, for it represented a threat of the sort they simply could not afford in their current life, and he had brought it to them as a result of his carelessness down there in the canyon.  

Not deliberate carelessness, wouldn’t do that, but by allowing yourself to get into such a depleted state over the past…well, months, years, goes back a ways I guess, you kind of set yourself up for that, and set your family up for the consequences, too.  Got no business doing that, not with them depending on you not only to help provide for their daily needs, but to use your experience to keep them out of the hands of the feds.  Depending on you for that, and here you go creating a threat and inviting trouble by falling asleep in a place where people ended up coming.  Not only falling asleep there, but—he shuddered at the memory, hadn’t really wanted to think much about it since that day—ending up unable to get up and go, when they did come across you.  Do you realize the implications of that?  Realize how close you came, that time?  If they’d been searchers of some sort, or even if they’d simply been bat scientists, but had recognized you, it might well have all ended right then and there.  They’d have had you and you couldn’t have done a thing about it. 

Is that really a situation you want?  Would want, even if other people weren’t depending on you?  That’s just about your worst nightmare, man.  Ending up defenseless like that with the enemy standing over you and you entirely unable to resist, just like in the tunnel that day when you came out of that water and had the little guy in black pajamas knock you upside the head before you could do anything about it, and drag you away to that cage…  He kicked savagely at a nearby granite boulder, suddenly very angry and no longer the least bit cold, struggling hard to keep himself in the present and prevent his slipping into the dark, humid jungle world that seemed always lurking to claim him when such memories presented themselves with any degree of intensity.

No, he did not want a repeat of that situation, and the fact that he’d very nearly let it happen again infuriated him, left him wanting very badly to bash himself senseless against the nearest sizeable chunk of granite by way of recompense for acting so foolishly, such an act seeming the only way to set things right, but he kept walking, didn’t do it, knowing the resulting blood loss would only serve to worsen the situation and increase the likelihood of finding himself in another similar predicament.  That was the problem, wasn’t it?  The things he used to get himself through these troubles—had used all his life to do so—were killing him now, were demanding more and more of him until there quite literally wasn’t much left.  Supposed perhaps he could find some new ways of doing things, if he really set his mind to it.  If he really wanted to change his methods.  Which, most times, he was pretty sure he did not, for reasons of his own.  Enough, Einar.  Let’s have a little less talk, and a lot more action, as they say.  This nonsense isn’t getting us breakfast, and it’s about time you helped Liz get hold of the provisions around here.  She’s been on her own with that for way too long.  Your turn.

Setting aside for the time all his philosophical musings—but not the anger which had come with his remembering the incident in the tunnel; that was not so easy to set aside, once it had taken hold—Einar continued up the ridge, his pace increased and feet not dragging nearly as badly as they had been.  Had to be food out there, and he meant to find it.

23 May, 2014

23 May 2014

No chapter today, but I will have one ready for tomorrow.

Thank you all for reading!

20 May, 2014

20 May 2014

Perhaps it was the relief of finding his family safe on his return, or of finally being able to sit down for a little while with no one pursuing and nowhere to go, but Einar found himself assailed by an exhaustion the likes of which he had not known for some time, barely able to keep his eyes open as Liz prepared a fire, and supper, and little Will kept excitedly repeating to him all the events of the past week there at the shelter.  He propped himself up a bit higher against the wall, tried to focus on Will’s words, amazed at how many actual, intelligible words the little one was using.  More than he remembered hearing before his departure, for certain.  Amazing how quickly such things changed.  Not wanting to miss any more of the process, Einar hoped his wandering days could be over, at least for a while.  Sleep.  It wanted to come, and he resisted, determined to stay awake not lose his place in the world just yet.

“How’s the trapline been?  Many rabbits?”

Liz was startled to hear him speaking.  Had thought him already asleep.  “They’re not too abundant, but every couple of days I’ve been getting one.  Not bad.”

“Spring’s coming. I saw it down there.  Saw things stating to get green.  Won’t be long at all, and we’ll be seeing the signs up here, too.”

“Oh, I already am!  Less and less snow every day, and look at the aspens!”

Einar craned his neck to see out the door.  Buds on the aspens, small but swelling, and he smiled.  “We’re a little lower here than we were at the cabin. Will be interesting to see the differences, as spring really comes.  Everything should come just a little sooner, a little faster.  May have some different plants up here, lot of raspberries and thimbleberries in that downed timber, things like that.  Saw a bunch of avalanche lilies down where I was, but when I went to start collecting them…”  He shrugged, threw up his hands.

“When you started collecting them, then what?  You changed your mind and decided not to?”

“No!  That’s when the guys stepped out of the timber and I had to crawl under a log to keep from being seen.”

“What guys?  What are you talking about?”

“Wildlife biologists I told you about.  Guys whose tents are over on the rim. They’re the reason all these planes have been coming and going.  Ran into them before, when I camped out near the moose after retrieving a little meat.  Had thought I’d managed to leave them behind after that, but there they were, not twenty yards from me and right as I’d been about to get something to eat, too.”

“Well, you can have something now, and not to worry.  I’m not about to let any bat scientists get in your way!  They’d have me and my rabbit stick to deal with, if they were to try.”

“I missed you and your rabbit stick, while I was away.  How about let’s try and stay on the same square of the topo map as one another for a while, if you can stand me.  What do you think?”

“Sure, I can stand you. That sounds like a fine idea!  Looks like Will thinks so, too.”  She picked up the child, who had pulled himself to a standing position on his father’s lap and was balancing precariously with both hands entangled in Einar’s hair for support.  Will protested, but not for long, soon fascinated with inspecting the sleek grey-brown hide of the rabbit whose meat filled that evening’s stew pot.

Einar saw that the firewood pile was small, wanted to fetch more so Liz wouldn’t have to interrupt her cooking to do the task, but when he tried to rise, nothing happened.  Couldn’t get up, did not want her to see it so rolled to his side instead of continuing to try, bracing himself on one elbow and waiting for her to become occupied with the fire before again making an effort to rise.  Absurd, this trouble.  He’d just successfully traversed several dozen miles of very rough country with men at times close on his heels, and the notion that he would now have trouble simply raising himself to a sitting position in his own home struck him as absolutely ridiculous, unacceptable.  And perhaps just the slightest bit frightening, had he allowed himself to slow down and think about what was going on. 

No chance of any such reflection, however, Einar even then engaged in a rather intense struggle with his own failing muscles and sinews, determined not only to sit up and help Liz with the supper, but to prevent her noticing that anything was the matter.  Success on the first account and a dismal failure on the second, though she didn’t let on that she had noticed.  No sense making a big fuss.  It wasn’t what he would want.  Hopefully, he would want some supper.  He’d said something about retrieving a section of the moose meat while he was out, but who knew how much he had actually eaten, or how many days might have gone by since that time?  He seemed a bit unclear on the details.  Well. Things could only get better from there, now that they were all back together again under one roof, the threat of the unknown for the time dispelled, named, categorized and eluded and life hopefully set to return to something like normal, for all of them.

Arms full of firewood, Einar stood for a time listening to the evening before heading back inside.  Quiet there, wind in the trees, Will’s babbling from inside, the crackle of the fire.  Good to be home.  He swayed, pitching forward, off balance.  Better get inside and eat, see if the food might make some difference to the way he was feeling.  Needed to make some difference.   If there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was to be useless, and he felt himself rapidly heading for that point.  Could barely get his body to hold up under the weight of that firewood, let alone propel itself forward, and for a brief moment he was alarmed by the feeling of his own weakness, by the reality of it.  Shook his head, kept moving.  Had to keep moving.  Had to get these thoughts out of his head, too.  That was all they were.  Thoughts.  Had no more power over him than whatever he was willing to give them, and he was not willing to give anything.  Not an inch.  Not useful.  Of course he could and would keep going, do whatever needed to be done.  Always kept going.  Was just weary from his long walk, from being away.  Things would look differently in the morning, after he’d had some sleep, warmed up a little and…

Liz calling from inside.  Supper ready.   He took another two steps, spilled his load of wood beside the little fire pit and went to his knees beside it, stacking, neatening, all done for the time, ready to be home, to be still, to eat.  

16 May, 2014

16 May 2014

Now that Liz had established beyond doubt that the presence in the clearing had indeed been Einar, himself, she began her search in earnest, again returning to the shelter to see if she might have missed some sign that he had visited there, but again finding nothing.  Why had he returned, but failed to so much as approach the shelter to see if she was home?  Silly question, probably, for surely he would have known the answer from quite some distance.  Perhaps he had even spotted her tracks from that morning, when she had set out to run the trapline, and had followed, instead of heading into the shelter.  Possible.  But if so, where was he?  Scouting the place to make certain absolutely no one had trespassed in his absence? 

In any case, she hoped the goofy guy would very soon choose to show himself, knowing he would almost without doubt be in serious need of some food, warmth and rest after his journey.  No sense making any further search for him.  If he didn’t wish to be found for whatever reason, he would not be found, and her attempts might simply lengthen the time before he would choose, of his own accord, to walk out into the open and come home.  All she could do was to wait, work on turning the day’s rabbits into a stew against the time when he would return.  She wanted to make a fire, warm the place and prepare a feast of stew and stone-baked flat bread for Einar’s welcome home meal, but not knowing what he might have discovered in his wanderings and in what frame of mind such discoveries would have left him, it seemed wisest to wait on the fire.

Sun sinking low and the cold shadows of evening widening to fill the little basin, Einar sat and watched.  Though his concern had at first been with the clearing, the shelter, with making sure no one had been there in his absence and laid a trap against his return, such things were now settled in his mind, and he watched only his back trail.  Had set no definitive length of time for which he must maintain this watch, realized now that he ought to have done so, ought to go ahead and do so now, if he could, lest he end up staying the entire night perched on his wind-scoured section of high ridge.

Wanted to go to Liz without further delay, greet her, see his son, but knew once she got hold of him there would be no more quiet sitting and observing on the ridge that evening, and before he could settle in for the night, he must know that he had brought no one back with him.  So, he waited.  Cold up there, a sharp wind sweeping down from the peaks and singing lonely little songs in the firs, voice melding with their own until Einar could no longer tell them apart.  Drifting.  Near sleep.  The realization startled him.  Timing was all wrong.  Could not sleep until the matter of his back trail was settled, and even then, must not do it here, crouched in the snow on a windy ridge-crest, within sight of home but without having availed himself of its shelter.  Would be a silly way for everything to end.  Silly, and quite inexcusable, and not too far off, if he didn’t get himself to his feet and break the inertia that had already begun securing him rather firmly in its grasp.  Einar rose, stretched, grabbed for the nearest tree and hung on as he waited for the passing of the cramps that had seized both of his lower legs and feet, making it feel as though his toes were being bent up and back.  They did not pass, and eventually he had to just move on, anyway.  Difficult to walk like that, but not impossible. He’d done it before. 

One last look over his shoulder, and Einar was ready to come down from the ridge.  Had no reason to believe he’d been followed after his last contact with the biologists, no reason, in fact, to suspect that they had so much as seen him that time.  He’d taken all reasonable precautions—save the one of entirely avoiding human contact in the first place, which he well knew he ought to have found a way to manage—and it was time to go home.  Liz was looking for him.  He could tell by the way she moved whenever she left the shelter, by her demeanor and the way she would stop every few steps and stare off into the timber, never directly at him, but sometimes too close for comfort.  Clearly either she knew something was out there, or hoped it was, and in either case, he did not wish to keep her any longer in suspense.  Could kind of use something to eat, too, now that he thought about it.  If she had anything handy.  If not, he’d have to be out on the trapline first thing in the morning, hoping for success.

Those last two hundred and fifty yards seemed a rather long distance to Einar, weary as he was now beginning to feel and with legs cooperating rather poorly, but he closed the distance, wanting somehow to let Liz know he was approaching, was a friend, and not to shoot, but never quite settling on what might be the most suitable means to accomplishing this.  Mouth seemed rather too dry to get any words out, which was strange, as he’d been intending to drink water, was pretty sure he’d had some that day…  Finally, nearing the shelter and seeing no sign of Liz outside, he settled on imitating one of the calls made so familiar to them by Muninn the raven, a harsh, rasping note which Liz surely would recognize.

Not only did Liz recognize the call of the raven, she responded in kind, hurrying from the shelter and staring for a brief moment in what appeared to Einar to be consternation—maybe she hoped it was really the raven, instead?—before her face lit up and she headed his direction.

“You’re back!”

Einar responded with a wild grin and tried to run to her but his legs would not carry him at anything beyond a slow stumble, so he did that instead, laughing as she caught him to prevent a fall, steered him inside.  She wanted him to sit, rest, was asking about a fire but he had to tell her, let her know something about the situation.

“Biologists.  Just…studying bats and that’s why all the…planes and the…”

“Ok, ok, slow down.  You’ve got all night to tell me about it.  Bat biologists, is it?”

“Yeah, real sure about that because I was in their tent and they almost found me but I got out the back and went…”

“Hey, hold on, you don’t have to get it all out in one long sentence, do you?  Are they following you?  Are they an immediate threat to us, here?”

“No threat.  Not right now.”

“Good!  The rest, we can talk about in a while.  How about I get this fire going if they’re no immediate threat, and we’ll have some rabbit stew before we go on to anything else?”

Einar nodded wearily, sat down with his back to the wall and allowed Will—babbling and gesturing with great excitement at all the Urgent Matters about which he had to inform his father without any further delay—to crawl onto his lap.

12 May, 2014

12 May 2014

Now that Einar knew beyond doubt the location of his foes he made good time, meaning to put them well behind him.  The men, so far as he could tell, had neither the desire nor ability to track him, were by all appearances simply scouting for caves and more bats to observe and study, and he hoped he’d be able to remember that later, when darkness came and things began to seem a lot less certain and his mind began telling him that the entire thing was a ruse, designed from the start to put him at his ease so he could be captured.  Such thoughts—and he knew they would come—would only slow him down, increase the chances of his having another unwanted encounter with the men, which might indeed lead, in the end, to a renewed search and to his capture.  Just keep moving.  Put some distance behind you.  That’s what this situation calls for.  Break contact.  Just break contact, minimize the sign you leave behind, and you’ll be ok.  Can go home.

For three days Liz had been running the trapline faithfully, finding, some mornings, a rabbit or two in Einar’s snares and sometimes finding nothing, but always benefitting from the time spent out on the trail with Will.  At home, in the still, close darkness of the shelter, she tended to find herself brooding, mind wandering the distant timber in search of Einar and coming up each time with nothing, no sure sense of his situation, no certainty that he would be returning.  At times, it was rather too much to take and it was then that she would make an extra run of the trapline, slipping Will into her parka hood and stalking up along the ridge beneath the timber, seeking out sign which would speak of the passing of a rabbit, squirrel or other small animal which might provide them food. 

As she walked she would speak softly to Will, narrating for him the passing landscape and at times putting into words her growing concern for the boy’s father, the misgivings—much as she tried to push them aside—about his safe return.  It had been so long, she told the child, so many days without word, and though she knew Einar was as resourceful and determined as anyone she had ever met or could imagine meeting—things happened out there, and sometimes, people did not come back. 

She was—small comfort, but at least it was something—confident that Einar had not run afoul of any federal search party that might have been connected to the air activity of several days prior, for had this been his fate, she was sure the air traffic would have increased, if only for a short time, as they whisked him out of the area and commenced a search for the place where he had been living—and for the rest of his family.  Still free then, and that was a good thought.  She could only pray that he was also still alive, remembered them and was making some effort to return home.  Wished desperately that she could be with him, wherever he might be, but had to content herself with her long walks in the timber, conversation with Will, and a good deal of prayer.  He would either return, or he would not, and in the meantime, she had life to live, a son for whom to provide.

It was on her return from one of these expeditions, nine days after Einar’s departure and at two days after the point at which she had ceased counting the days lest the time only seem to stretch out longer, that Liz noticed something amiss upon returning to the shelter-clearing.  Always she approached the place with caution, pausing with increasing frequency as she neared to watch and listen, wanting to have plenty of warning should the place have been invaded in her absence, and this time, though seeing no specific thing which aroused her suspicion, she knew someone or something had entered the space since her leaving earlier that morning.  Looking for tracks, she saw none, heard no rustle or crackle of vegetation when she stopped still beneath the evergreens and could not define, when she tried, exactly what it was giving her pause.  Yet long practice and some innate sense which rightly belongs to all humans, as it does to those of other species, and which had been reawakened during her years in the woods, told her that something had changed.

Though wishing to rush to the shelter, calling out for Einar all the way, Liz held back.  Had to be sure.  Could not risk Will’s safety, or her own, by accepting the most probable supposition.  After a thorough reconnaissance of the area, Liz had still failed to determine for certain who—or even what—had invaded the little sanctuary, the odd bent or broken branch here and there confirming her suspicion that they’d had company in their absence, but no further clue presenting itself as to the nature of the visitor.   

Finally, having done all she knew to do and deeming the shelter as safe as she was able, Liz moved forward, weapon ready, and entered.  Only to find the place empty.  Not only empty, but undisturbed.  No one had entered in her absence.  She did not understand.  Thought perhaps she had misread the signs, let her caution run away with her and spooked herself into sensing things that never had existed, but she knew better.   Had to find an answer.  Leaving the shelter, she began by making a thorough circuit around its perimeter, seeking any sign which might further define the presence she was sure had touched the place in her absence.  A broken twig here, depressed bit of soil there, but nothing definitive.  Will seemed fascinated by the process, eyes riveted on the ground that his mother studied so intently and his voice stilled as if he sensed something of the gravity of the situation, wanted to help.

“Who was it, Snorri?”  Liz spoke softly, barely above a whisper.  “Who’s been visiting us?  Was it your daddy?   I sure hope so, but if it was him, where is he?  Where’s he gone?  Surely he sees us by now, if he’s out there watching…”

Will answered by mimicking her tone of voice, gravely whispering words which were no doubt of great import in his mind, but which could not be deciphered by his mother’s ear.  “Alright, then.  If you don’t know either, we’ll just have to keep looking.  Maybe it was just a deer.  Or a porcupine.  But I haven’t seen any sign of them either, really…”

More searching, Liz wearying at the effort as she saw nothing that appeared particularly out of place and was again beginning to convince herself she must have dreamed up the entire thing—when she saw the track.  It was only a partial, worn Vibram treads along an inner edge, but was without doubt human in origin, and the discovery excited her, set her to renewed searching.  After some time and multiple, expanding rings walked around the shelter and surrounding area, she found a place where the snow had been soft enough to take several tracks in a row, three, to be exact, and the pattern and gait, though somewhat changed since the last time she’d seen them, were clearly Einar’s.

09 May, 2014

9 May 2014

Warmer weather having settled over the high country and the sun shining bright and unobstructed by cloud on the remaining snow, Einar found himself having to take increasing care as he made his way over and around banks and slopes of the stuff, avoiding it altogether whenever possible lest he leave sign.  This warmth, he knew, would not have so thoroughly reached the area of their shelter, but would be along before the passage of too many days, bringing with it melting, mud and vibrant explosion of plant life so well adapted to the highly limited summer season up near tree line.  Everything would be in a hurry to sprout, bloom, produce its fruit and seeds, and they would have to be ready to take advantage of these crops as each one came available, preparing, as did the animals, for a winter which would return all too soon. 

This was not the first time Einar had considered taking his family down to the lower country, into the foothills where seasons were a bit longer, food slightly more plentiful and life perhaps not such a grim struggle all the time, but now, as before, the risks of detection living down in the lower country simply seemed too great.   Some hiker, hunter, or horseback rider passing too near and smelling their smoke and it could all be over for them, whatever life they’d managed to build in such a location.  Could happen in their present home too, of course, but chances seemed far less, especially considering the difficult terrain and protective jumble of fallen timber surrounding and protecting the little basin they now called home. 

No, best to stay right where they were, it seemed, and carve out a life there.  Was so much they could do with the place, trapping during the snowy months, collecting and preserving the bounty of the land as things thawed and the brief summer burst upon the land, and as he walked, cautious, deliberate, watching for the men who were still out there ahead of him somewhere, Einar realized that he had accomplished relatively little since their arrival at the place. 

Oh, he had worked diligently to weatherproof the shelter and see that Liz would have food, but there was so much more which could be done with scouting, traplines, preparing drying racks against the time when nettles, lamb’s quarters and raspberry leaves would be ready to harvest and dry against the next winter, not to mention the plethora of roots—spring beauty, avalanche lily and waterleaf, to start the list—which could be dug and preserved.  Seemed, thinking about it now, that he had been living in some sort of half-awake state since coming to the place, getting through the day-to-day details of keeping body and soul together for himself and his family—well, more for them than for him, as the connection seemed frequently a bit tenuous on his own account—but not really thinking or planning much beyond that immediate need.  That, if they were to have any sort of decent life in the place, would have to change. 

Survival was a good thing, was certainly the first thing, for without that nothing could come after, but Liz was attempting to raise a child there in that high, difficult country—well, they both were—and would surely appreciate a bit of security, if it could be managed, a bit of a cushion set aside so things did not always have to be such a desperate struggle, the next meal such an uncertain thing.  Not always possible, for sure, but there was a lot he could do to work in that direction. 

Starting with getting your own body in better shape, don’t you think, so your own day-to-day existence won’t be such an uncertain thing…?  He shrugged, shivered, nah, I’m fine, wouldn’t know how to live any other way, really, and kept walking.  Had to keep telling himself that, at least until he got home.  To do anything else while out on the trail was to risk getting all bogged down and finding himself really struggling to make it home.  Was ready to be home.  Wanted to be with Liz and see how Will had changed in his absence, to really get started on improving the place for his family, but knew he could not make a direct line for the little basin as he would have liked to do.  Must be certain, every step of the way, that he was not being followed.  Had not seen the men for some time, not since they’d disappeared up the ridge in front of him, and keeping well back from the rim in the thought that they would likely parallel it, he increased his speed in the hope of being able to work his way around them. 

All the thoughts of home and the things that needed doing once he got there seemed to have given Einar a measure of renewed energy and strength, he taking full advantage of its presence to make good time as he skirted the low rise on which he believed the two biologists to be traveling.  Something moving up ahead in the chokecherry scrub, Einar pressing himself against the mossy flank of a granite boulder and keeping low until he could identify the source of the sound.  Too small, he decided after some time, to be the men, its movements random to belong to a human at all, and when at last he crept out of his hiding place and stalked closer, it was to discover a good-sized grouse feeding among the fallen leaves at the base of a chokecherry bush.  The bird was close, well within range of a carefully-aimed rock or even a stick, the sight of it making Einar’s mouth water.  Too much intervening brush to reliably hit it from his present position, and with those men potentially nearby, he could not risk a poor hit which might wound the bird instead of killing.  The ensuing racket would surely be enough to get the attention of every living creature within half a mile.

Einar had to get closer.  Keeping low to the ground and doing his best not to look directly at the bird lest it sense his intentions and take flight—grouse were justifiably known as “fool hens,” but still would sometimes startle and flee if presented with too intense a predatory focus—he closed the distance until only one small stand of brush lay between him and his supper.  Already he had his chosen weapon in hand, a stout section of spruce root with a good, heavy knot in one end, a suitable rabbit stick if he’d ever seen one.  Ha!  Good thing Liz isn’t here, or she’d probably use it on me instead of this bird…and then I’d have a sore head, and we’d still have no supper.  He smiled at the thought, but it quickly froze on his face, faded, for there was only one creature in the woods which could make the sounds he was now hearing.

Humans.  He’d succeeded, it seemed, in catching up with the biologists, succeeded so well that he’d very nearly crept up on them as they stopped to have their lunch and now they were leaving, talking quietly as they folded maps and stowed gear in their packs not fifty yards from where he crouched ready to take his meal.  No more.  Bird was no longer an option, not with the noise it could potentially make, and them so close.

Gritting his teeth in frustration and pressing an elbow into the hungry hollow of his stomach, Einar watched his meal amble casually away, entirely unaware of how close it had come.  He, at least, was better informed than he had been previously, knowing the exact position and current occupation of his unwelcome companions, and without further hesitation he turned, stalked carefully off in the opposite direction, meaning to put some miles—and those men—well behind him.

06 May, 2014

6 May 2014

Einar never did get his lily roots, but he did, at least, get adequate warning. 

The men were not moving quietly, not, it seemed, even trying for stealth, and it was a good thing, or they likely would have walked right out on Einar as he crouched digging lily roots at the edge of the clearing.  As it was, he heard the crashing and crunching of what he took at first to be a large, four-footed animal long before they neared the clearing, and was well-concealed beside the remains of a rotten spruce log by the time they stepped out amongst the newly-sprouted lilies.  Same pair who had discovered him down near the creek.  He knew them by their clothing, by the gear they carried, guessed they must have been behind him all the time, somewhere back there puzzling out his trail, to reach the place so soon after he had done so, himself.  Now Einar knew why he had not been able to spot the men in the valley when he had every so often stopped to watch his backtrail.  They had, by that time, already been too close.  Had their apparent attempt to ascend the canyon wall been merely a ruse, then, designed to throw him off his guard and convince him that they had on intent to follow him?  Was looking that way.

Close.  Not fifteen yards from his position the men had stopped, stood together facing the rim and pointing at something through the aspens.  Einar breathed a little sigh of relief.  At least they weren’t pointing at him…  He could not make out their words, snatched away as they were by a sudden gust of wind, but the way they kept looking at their instruments and turning one way and then the other seemed to indicate that they were searching for a signal, hoping to pick something up.  From what?  He squirmed around in his hiding place, desperately glancing over clothing, boots, pack, looking for the transmitter.   Had a wild notion to ditch everything—clothes, footwear, pack, all of it—and stalk off as silently and quickly as possible into the woods so as to be far away whenever they got their bearings and located whatever bit of his possessions they had tagged that morning.  Was looking like his only chance. 

Backs to him, wind gusting again.  That was good.  Would cover any untoward movement he might make in accomplishing the task, prevent his being given away by a crackle of dry grass or leaf, an elbow showing briefly above the log which concealed him, would give him time to make his move.

Moving.  Knife in hand and everything else left behind, Einar eased his way through the low vegetation, fresh spring-smell of sun-warmed soil rising around him and the newly sprouted vegetation gentle against his body—until he reached the rose brambles.  Not so gentle, then, teeth gritted against the tearing and clawing but he had to keep going, had to reach the heavier timber farther from the opening of the meadow.  Seemed his only hope, for surely soon his pursuers would sort out whatever trouble they were having with their instruments, and would find the things he had left behind.  Timber in sight and body low to the ground, Einar covered those last few yards and rolled beneath yet another fallen log, this one with a bit of crusty snow remaining in its shadow.  He did not care, barely noticed its cold bite on hips and elbows as cautiously he raised himself, looked back.

Locating his pursuers, Einar was puzzled at what he saw.  Instead of working their way towards the spot where he’d left everything, they had turned in the opposite direction and were themselves nearly out of sight in the timber on the meadow’s far side.  The sight baffled Einar.  Was the move a trick, designed to flush him out?  Probably.  Perhaps they had somehow managed to get a look at the little pile of clothing and gear which held their tracking device, and realize that he was onto them, had already moved on.  Seemed reasonable to think they might wait, under such circumstances, lie low and see if he would reveal himself.  Well.  He would not fall for that.  Would out-wait them, force them to make the next move.  He could do that, and did, not moving a muscle for the next twenty minutes other than to shiver now and then when all efforts at suppression failed.  

Get hold of yourself.  Breathe.  Got to keep still.  You can keep still, with enough effort.  Trying, Einar succeeded, but the packed snow behind his log sure was cold on exposed skin, elbows yellow-white and bloodless when he checked, and he knew that while he could certainly out-wait his pursuers, he ought not necessarily try to do it right there in the snow.

Not far from the log which concealed him lay a jumble of firs, some of them ancient an fallen, others growing up from their midst, and it was to these Einar meant to travel, burrow down in the good, insulating layer of needles beneath and bide his time.  Just had to get there without being seen.  Inching forward so he could peer around the log rather than over it, he searched for his opponents.  No sign.  Move.  He needed them to move.  Scanned the immediate area, wider circles working out away from his position, but still no flash of motion or glint of metal in the crisp spring sunlight gave them away.  Perhaps—near panic at the thought, he pressed himself into the ground, into the snow; must not run—they had already seen him and were working their way around behind, even then near to taking him.  Still, silent, he listened, heard nothing.  Then it came.

Only a single, momentary sighting, but it was all Einar needed, shifting his attention to the spot some two hundred yards distant and halfway up a low ridge of oak brush and leafless aspens.  There they were, both me, unmistakable—and unmistakably walking away from the meadow.  Waiting until they disappeared into a slight depression in the ground he crept stiffly out of his hiding place, scooped up his clothes and gear and ducked behind the cluster of firs which had been intended as his next place of concealment.

Einar shivered as he shrugged back into his shirt, parka, pulled pants into place and returned thorn-scraped feet to their socks, stepping into one boot and huddling for a brief moment on the ground before rising.  Felt good to have his clothes back, strange and scratchy and warm against numbed skin, and he knew he’d really begin shivering in earnest before long, as he started warming.  Strange, too, to have them back, with thoughts of tracking devices and miniaturized GPS units still so fresh in his mind.  Maybe he was right in his first course of thinking and the men had backed off simply to put him at his ease so they could follow safely from a distance and move in when circumstances were more favorable.  Like when he was too worn out to take another step.  Or when the choppers came in with reinforcements…    He shook his head, pulled on the other boot.  Not likely, any of it. 

Not likely enough to justify your leaving behind all your clothes and gear, anyway!  Summer may be coming but it sure isn’t here yet, and you’d have one heck of a rough time making it through a freezing night without clothes or a fire, right now.  Could do it if you had to, got to think that you could do it, but not today.  Not without more cause than this.  Just spooked yourself seeing how those guys came up on you like that at the meadow, after you’d thought they were still far below in the canyon.  Would have spooked them too, no doubt, had they seen you!  Just got to try and keep track now, not cross paths again.  Seems very little chance at all that they would have had time during your brief encounter to secure a tracking device of any sort to your clothing or gear, even had they wanted to do it.  You’re just feeling strange because there are some things you don’t remember from that time.  Some missing moments.  Definitely be best to avoid that sort of thing in the future, and if you want to avoid it, you know you’ve got to eat. 

The lilies were off limits.  Too risky to step out into the open and dig them, with those men still somewhere in the area.  Too bad.  The rose hips had given him a brief surge of energy, but already it was waning and he wished for more.  More, perhaps, would come as he walked.

05 May, 2014

5 May 2014

I have been out of town, am back now, and will have a chapter ready for tomorrow.

Thank you all for your patience!

02 May, 2014

2 May 2014

Unbeknownst to Einar as he started off into the deeper timber, the course he’d chosen in his effort to give the towers a wide berth would, itself, end up providing him the food he so badly needed for the continuation of his journey.  All he knew at the moment was that the handful of coarse, bitter lichen he’d managed to choke down seemed to be having some beneficial effect, filling his stomach and lending him an energy which, if not what he might have expected from a more nutritionally-dense sort of snack, certainly went a long way in contrast to what he’d had before.

The tower.  He could just see it over the tops if the nearest trees.  Too close, and he altered his course, retreated several yards further into the timber.  Must not lose his sense of where the thing lay, even if his path did take him out of sight of it for time to time, for he had the sense that to accidentally step out of the trees in too close proximity to all those new sensors and antennae might prove a fatal mistake.  Hard to say who might be watching, or how quickly they would be able to mount a response, should they see something that caught their interest. 

A clearing ahead, snow mostly gone in its center, exposing grass matted down with the white, spider web-like netting of snow fungus which often marked the retreat of the snowpack.  Already he could see the vibrant green spears of avalanche lilies piercing the damp soil beneath, thriving on the abundant moisture of the melting snow.  Soon—weeks, still, but soon—those shoots would rise and grow and burst forth with a riot of yellow flowers as they took full advantage of the alpine spring, a carpet of gold covering the meadow.  No flowers yet, but there were, Einar knew, roots beneath those shoots, and though perhaps not in their prime in that season, a handful of the things would certainly provide him more energy than the lichen had done. 

Advancing cautiously, Einar reached the edge of the meadow and stood alert, listening, needing those lily roots but unwilling to step out onto the open ground of that meadow.  Some rules simply must not be violated when one is existing under questionable circumstances, and that was one of the more important among them.  Still, there were some lilies growing around the edges, and though not showing themselves as clearly as the ones whose heads were already above the soil, they revealed to Einar their positions by the little mounds of soil that were raised above them as they worked their way towards the surface.  Subtle clues, and ones which showed up far better from the ground level, so Einar lowered himself to the ground, knowing that it would be a struggle for him to rise again but counting the information thus gained worth the effort.  Dozens of lilies, even there in the shadows of the trees, and creeping backwards on his stomach Einar searched out a digging stick, found one in a strong, barkless stub of a dead spruce branch which he broke from the tree and hastily sharpened before beginning his task.

Had to go carefully, not disturb the soil any more than was absolutely necessary lest he leave clues for potential pursuers, but the roots of the lilies were deep, not near the surface like those of the similarly-provident spring beauty plant—too bad none of them were around, as the two plants often shared territory, but he saw no sign of the second—but sometimes as far as a foot down, growing sideways in the soil.  Too bad he wasn’t a bear, Einar could not help but think, so he could simply dig and shred and free the soil of its bounty of roots, but he was no bear, and must take more care not to leave sign.  Digging carefully with his sharpened stick, he soon found the soil there in the shadows of the timber to be still frozen not four inches down, disappointing if not terribly surprising, seeing that the snow had so recently departed and the spot received very little sunlight.  Squinting, striving mostly without success to bring his eyes into focus—vision had seemed to be growing worse over the past days, and the realization of how quickly the thing seemed to be advancing disturbed him—he scanned the far edge of the clearing, searching for shoots and trying to assess whether those spots might receive enough sunlight to make the digging easier.  Difficult to tell for certain, but it appeared not.  Must move out into the open, then, if he wanted some of those roots, but instead of doing so, Einar raised himself wearily to hands and knees, and again retreated into the timber.

Defeat.  Not a good thing, especially when one is struggling so hard to begin with, but not an unaccustomed one, either.  He would move on.  Find another food source.  He hoped.  Would try to move on, at least.  Seemed to be trapped for the moment, and when he sought out the cause of his seeming inability to leave the immediate vicinity, it was to discover that he’d accidentally crawled smack into the middle of a cluster of wild rose bushes.  Shaking his head and laughing silently—he’d experienced a brief moment of near-panic at the thought that he might finally have reached the end of his strength, and rendered himself at last entirely incapable of meaningful movement—he sought to free himself, working carefully at the brambles.

Not only brambles, he discovered as he worked, for the bushes were in places dotted with clusters of last year’s rose hips, withered and faded by fall frosts and a winter under the snow, but still there, still, he knew from prior experience, containing a fair amount of sugar in the dried remains of the fruit, and oil in the large seeds which filled their centers.  Forgetting for the moment his need to be free of the thorns Einar devoted his entire attention to filling his pockets with the shriveled fruits, almost forgetting in the process to fill his mouth, as well.  Not terribly sweet were the fruits when at last he remembered to eat some, many of them sour and a bit fermented-tasting after their warm fall days on the vine, but he did not mind, knew that some sugar would remain available to him despite the ongoing process of decay. 

Before long—even before he’d exhausted the readily available supply of rose hips—Einar could indeed begin to feel their energy working in him, steadying hand and sharpening vision which had been going increasingly blurry, and given this newfound strength he again surveyed the lily-meadow, this time seeing detail—and hope—that he had not been able to notice before.  While the meadow-edges were almost universally in shadow due to the trees, there was one spot roughly opposite his present position where the timber thinned out, having allowed more sunlight to reach the ground.  He could tell by the advanced melting of the snow on that side, white strands of snow-fungus already beginning to disappear as they did after a certain time out in the sunlight and the lily shoots on that side higher even than the ones near the meadow’s center.  Best of all was his discovery of a large, sloping granite boulder that lay on the edge of the meadow in this area, mostly submerged in soil and with its surface angled down towards the ground, reflecting sunlight and likely explaining the advanced state of growth in the lilies around it.

To Einar, the boulder meant a way to access the lilies without leaving too much sign as he lay on the ground digging, an important need and one which had been lacking on the side of the meadow which he had first approached.  Rising—still difficult, muscles locking up painfully in protest, but not refusing this time to bear his weight—he finished freeing himself from the rose brambles, and set off skirting the meadow through the trees, ready to fill his pack with lily roots and continue on his journey.  Going home.