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!”
“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.