There was to be no elk hunting that afternoon, a fact that became clear to Einar when he heard the third plane go over and realized where they were coming from. The party on the canyon rim was, it seemed, finally breaking up and moving on after nearly two weeks of occupying the camp. Apparently they had finished counting, following and inventorying their bats. Certainly there had been too many campers present to be ferried out all at once in the planes he’d seen beside the makeshift landing strip, which explained why they now seemed to be making multiple trips back and forth. At least, seeing that the planes did not circle or seem to take any undue interest in the area of the shelter, he found himself more of less able to accept their presence as reasonable and fully explained, not a cause for any rash actions or a hasty evacuation of the little basin.
Liz was glad he saw it that way, hoped the trend would continue, as the last thing she wanted was to be on the run again with little Will and his father, who had himself just returned from a rather extensive and exhausting trek, and could without doubt benefit greatly from a few quiet days at home. The air traffic concerned her, though. Concerned them both, though they were in agreement very likely had nothing to do with them. Anytime significant numbers of aircraft were passing over the place, the chances were increased of someone spotting an irregularity on the ground, some little detail which caught their attention and perhaps warranted, in their minds, further investigation. The trapline, for instance, and the tracks they’d left in checking it each morning. While human-made trails could look like elk trails from the air—Einar had seen it—anyone with more than a passing familiarity with elk would know that few could be found up that high in such an early season, making their trail an anomaly.
Worried, Einar paced the small space inside the shelter, three steps to the spot where the ceiling sloped down and he could no longer stand close to upright, three steps back, pausing to crouch and listen, palm against the outer wall, at the drone of yet another aircraft. Despite himself he crouched lower as the thing approached, some subconscious section of his brain thinking, perhaps, to disappear into the soil and his body shaking with the conflict of remaining still when really he wanted to hurry out and plaster himself against the trunk of the nearest evergreen, concealed, safe.
Wait. Just be still, and wait. They can’t see you in here, and besides, almost certainly aren’t looking. It will pass. They’ll all pass, and be gone, and you can… Inner words silenced, he listened again to the sky. Something changing in the quality of sound coming from that most recent plane, a change in direction, it seemed, and then he was sure. Thing was circling back, strange, and it did not fit the pattern. Silence in the shelter, even Will seeming to sense something amiss, until the drone had grow louder, passed again and faded away into the distance. When the quiet had held for the better part of a minute with no sign of the plane’s return, Liz crouched beside Einar, put a hand on his shoulder.
“What do you think they were doing?”
“Hard to say. Just looking, maybe. Hopefully not seeing too much.”
“I don’t think we’ve left too much for them to see, have we?”
“Just the trapline, mostly. And my tracks coming and going. Not much to see in most places, because the snow’s been so hard. But in others…someone who’s really looking might have plenty to see.”
“They’re looking for bats. We don’t look a lot like bats, so that ought to help quite a lot.”
“Ha! I’ve been called ‘batty’ before, among other things, but no, we sure don’t look like the little critters, and can hope these folks were just circling back to enjoy the view, or to check out a ledge or rock formation they thought might provide a good home for bats, for future reference. Think we can sit tight for now, but the elk hunt’s a wash for today. Not going anywhere while these planes are so active. If the bat camp is closing down, hopefully everyone will pack up and head out today, and things will be quiet again tomorrow.”
“The elk hunt can wait a day. We’ve got rabbit broth left, and some things from Bud and Susan still. If we could have a fire, I’d make us split pea soup with rabbit broth! But we can’t. So it will be cold rabbit broth and beef jerky, I guess. Unless you want rabbit broth with peanut butter, instead!”
“Hmm. Doesn’t sound bad at all, really. Especially if we had some garlic and chilis to put with it. Could make a real fine meal. We could use it as a sauce over a big pot of usnea lichen, make the stuff taste real edible, and keep us full for longer, too!”
“Well, when this snow finishes going and all the plants are up, I’ll see if I can find us some wild garlic to use fresh, and dry for next winter. The chilis might be a little less manageable, but there’s always some sort of wild mustard around, and we can use that, instead!”
“Well, sounds like a good plan. When summer comes. For now, I guess it’s rabbit broth and jerky tonight, then hopefully tomorrow I can make some progress on getting us an elk.”
“Elk!” Will shouted, voice triumphant if a bit squeaky, startling both Einar and Liz with his sudden acquisition of a new word. “Elk! Elk! Fire elk!”
“Oh yeah?” Einar asked, scooping him up and setting him on one knee. “And just what is a ‘fire elk,’ if I may ask? Sounds interesting, for sure. Does it breathe fire, or look like fire, or just live where forest fires have come through, like fireweed?”
“Yes, fire. And just as soon as these doggone planes have gone for good, I’ll be heading out to hunt the mighty fire elk, Will. Can’t take you with me this time, because if you were to yell ‘elk’ just as the critter came into sight, it would be kind of a disaster, but maybe next time. And you can sure help us skin the critter out, and start to learn the procedure there. Maybe even help with the tanning, who knows? What do you think? Is he too little to help with the tanning?”
“I’m sure he doesn’t think so, but he’d just eat the brains. Eat them, smear them all over himself, and pretty soon we wouldn’t have enough left to get the hide tanned!”
“Hmm. That could be a little bit of a problem. Sorry little guy, guess that one might have to wait a few months, too. But you can watch, anyway.” With which Einar fell silent, another plane making itself heard in the distance.