On the return trip, Einar did not stop. A number of times—more than he could count, looking back, the rotten snow had given way beneath him and sent him to his knees, or worse, under the load of that elk quarter, but always he was quick to regain his feet, joy of having successfully returned to the elk and salvaged more of its meat bearing him up when he fell and sustaining in him a momentum which devoured the snowy slopes and soon carried him, despite descending darkness, back down into terrain which he recognized. Not far from home now, and he paused briefly with back bent and one hand braced on his knee in the hopes of easing a growing tightness about his middle, breaths coming with difficulty. No wonder, with the weight of that elk quarter pressing on his shoulder and he constantly having to struggle against its bulk to get air into his lungs. Thing had to weight more than he did, or very nearly, but he dared not put it down for fear of finding himself unable to take it up again. The rest didn’t help, really, and he was soon in motion again, knowing that home was near, caring little for his lack of oxygen or anything else, really, other than successfully delivering that meat to Liz, and to their son.
Final rise, stunted little ridge which separated the small basin in which they sheltered from the surrounding timber, and Einar zigzagged up through the soft new snow. Light through a crack under the door, a few small ones in the walls which would need attention; Liz was at home, and a big smile split the wanderer’s weary face, for suddenly he found himself missing her so very badly that he could hardly stand thinking of the time it would take to drop down off of the little ridge and cross the clearing. He did stand it, though, it being a practice of his to make special effort at bearing anything his mind told him might be unbearable, standing quite still for a full five minutes while he listened to the little sounds of the crackling fire, Will babbling away and Liz’s occasional quiet answers. Then, swaying with weariness and beginning to doubt his ability to stay on his feet much longer, he straightened up under his burden, taking the slope in a series of long strides which brought him very soon to the basin floor, a song on his lips even if he lacked the breath to project it very far.
Liz met him out in the clearing, firelight streaming out across the new snow and Will bouncing excitedly in the doorway and squealing his greetings, wishing he could run after his mother into the fresh drifts. She tried to take the elk quarter from him, but Einar—back straight and a hint of quiet triumph on his face despite the knowledge that he was unsettlingly close to collapsing with the next step he tried—shook his head and covered the final distance, tossing a length of cord over the high branch of a spruce near the shelter and hoisting the meat up into the tree for the night.
Finished, and inside the shelter, the radiant heat of the flames was warm and strange on his face, light dazzling his eyes as he listened happily to Will’s enthusiastic if not entirely intelligible account of the day and tried to understand what Liz was wanting him to do with the steaming soup pot she was pressing most insistently into his hands. Hold it, apparently, and he did, but the warmth of its contents hurt his thawing fingers—the pain was alright, kept the what he could tell would otherwise be an overwhelming sleepiness at bay, but he worried about dropping the pot and burning Will—and after a time he set it aside, well out of reach of the ever-curious child, safe behind his back.
Liz was trying to help him off with his boots, but he shook his head, smiled and did it himself. “Surprised you guys are still awake. Must’ve taken half the night to get that thing down the mountain.”
“Oh, no, it’s only been dark for a couple of hours. You were quick! How’s the snow out there? It seems pretty soggy and rotten, right around the place here.”
“It’s kind of a mess. Lot of melting is going to happen now, and in a hurry, when the storm moves out. Quite a bit of water in this snow.”
“How was it for walking? I expect you were sinking in a lot, carrying that elk…”
Einar shrugged. “Expect so. Just kept moving. We’ll have to go back for the rest of it, but at least now we’ve got both quarters hanging in a tree, lot of meat to get us through the spring until…”
With which he fell silent, sleeping, head bowed and smile easing the weary lines of his face as he dreamt of springtime, leaving of the snow and the high, hidden meadows where the elk would bring their young into the world.
Liz, so filled with relief at his safe return—her lack of worry at his departure, she now realized, had been resignation, as much as anything, to the fact that he might well not survive the night—was half inclined to forgive Einar his dozing and let him be. Would have certainly done so, had it not been for the matter of his supper stew, which sat un-touched on the floor beside him. Did not seem a good thing for him to attempt to pass the night exhausted and chilled as he surely must be, without a bit of sustenance on board, first. Still, she hated to wake him from what appeared to be a pleasant dream, rare as it was for him to experience such, and for the moment she resolved to let him be, allow the fire to do its warming work as he rested.
Will soon solved Liz’s problem for her, clambering up onto his father’s lap and taking firm hold of his beard with both little hands before Liz realized what was happening, Einar startling awake. His first reaction, fortunately, was to keep absolutely still until he’d figured out the source of the attack, this delay in action saving little Will from what otherwise would have been a swift and rather violent trip across the length of the shelter. As it was Einar just stared for a moment, bleary-eyed and a bit confused, before realizing the situation and smiling at his son.
“Time for me to get up already, is it? Yeah, not good to be lazy. You were right to get after me, you rascal. Kind of a risky way to wake a fella up though, don’t you think? Be better to throw something from the other end of the room. You’ll learn that, someday.”
Squealing his delight at getting a reaction from Einar, Will released his hold and balanced all by himself on the floor for a few seconds before losing his balance and sitting down hard. Stronger every day, Einar noted. Would probably be walking soon. Just as soon as he got the balance and coordination thing down. That, it seemed, could take a while. Just as well. Nowhere much for such a little fellow to go, with the crusty, rotten snow all over the ground the way it was. Better that he learn to walk in the spring. Or summer. Both of which were on their way.