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.