By sometime just after dusk that evening the planes had stopped passing overhead, a sign, Einar hoped, that the camp on the rim was finally empty, and their own lives could begin returning to something a bit more like normal. The night itself was quiet, and still being rather exhausted from his journey, Einar slept soundly and well, waking only occasionally to tilt his head and listen for the distant drone of an approaching plane. Did not really expect to hear any, not so long as all the traffic that past afternoon and evening had truly been limited to the ending of the bat camp, and not to any renewed search or surveillance of the area.
Morning brought a welcomed stillness over the little basin, skies quiet and the breeze which whispered through the firs surprisingly mild, almost warm. It had, Einar noted upon leaving the shelter to make a quick run of the trapline, barely frozen overnight, the first time this had happened since the previous fall. Good news as far as the soon-to-come availability of a wider range of foods, but a temporary disadvantage, too, for what it would do to the remaining snowpack. Already he could see the difference, feel it when he took his first steps beyond the boot-packed snow around the shelter—and promptly sunk in up to his knees in the rotten, crumbly mess. The next several steps were the same, except that on the third, he went in nearly hip-deep where an unseen drift had concealed a depression in the ground. Some fifty yards up the ridge and with little change in conditions, Einar turned back. While entirely willing to put out the exhausting effort required to propel himself forward through the crumbly remains of the winter’s snow, he was rather more reluctant about leaving the amount of sign which he knew would be left in the snow by his passing.
By the time Einar worked his way back down to the shelter Liz had, herself, discovered the snow situation and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him coming. Though concerned about the possibility of their trail showing from the sky, greater was her concern about Einar’s using up all his energy, and more, tramping through that rotten snow. From the look of him, she feared he might already have done so, but he brushed off her concerns, shaking his head when she offered to give him a hand with his pack and taking a few rough breaths before spitting out the word, springtime!
“Springtime, and we’ve lost our good, solid snow. Travel’s gonna be…”
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for a while, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Kinda limited to the dark timber for a while, I guess. Snow will be a little more solid in there in the deep shade, and anytime we do fall through and make a mess, trees will keep it from showing as bad from above. The trapline though, that’s way too exposed, at least up high. And this lower part. We’ll have to swing through the trees to get to the middle, if we want to use it…”
“Swing through the trees? I’d like to see you try”
“Well, ok, just let me…”
“Hey! Can’t you tell when I’m kidding?”
“Sometimes. But I’m pretty good as swinging through the trees. Depending on the positioning of the branches, of course.”
“I don’t doubt it, but no, that is not really something I’d like to see right now! What if you fell out and left a big crater in the rotten snow? What would the planes think when they saw that?”
“Nothing much, so long as there were no tracks leading away from it…”
“Ha! You’re not getting away with anything like that! I’m counting on you to take that lone elk for us, just as soon as the snow melts out a little. Or freezes, either one.”
Einar just smiled and shrugged. Of course he’d take the elk, as soon as circumstances would allow. She knew he would take the elk.
Breakfast was another cold, fireless meal of soaked jerky and dried fruit, satisfying to Einar, who could not seem to bring himself to care much about food that day, aside from the matter of needing to acquire it for his family, but not nearly as hearty as Liz would have preferred, for either of them. Was looking as though they might have to resort to usnea lichen and the dried inner bark of spruces, after all. She hoped they would at least be able to have fires should it come to that, so the bark could be roasted on hot rocks to make the “spruce bacon” Einar had discovered during his first year on the run, and since shared with her. The stuff was pretty fibrous even after being roasted, but was at least crisp, fairly tasty and easy to get down. Well. It might not even come to that depending on how the spring thaw and melting progressed. One could not reliably predict such things. Einar was staring at her. She could feel his gaze even before she looked up.
“What?” She asked him. “What are you thinking?”
“I was wondering the same thing.”
“I was just thinking about spring. It’s not always an easy time for mountain-dwelling creatures, is it?”
He shook his head, leaning one elbow against the shelter wall and poking at a pile of icy snow with his boot. “One of the hardest times, a lot of years. None of the fresh stuff ready yet, no real vegetation, and the critters who eat the greens are still down lower for a while. Not easy for anyone, really. But,” he smiled, handed Will a sprig of fir that he was trying rather enthusiastically to reach, “we’ll get by. We always get by. This is gonna be Will’s first spring, his first time seeing bare ground, getting his toes in the dirt and running through the little meadows to take a dip in an ice-cold little snowmelt tarn, all of that. Will be a real good year.”
A little too young yet for swimming, Liz thought to herself, but yes, the rest of it does sound good. We just have to get there…