The remainder of that morning passed quietly for Einar and Liz, Will playing happily in his new spruce enclosure while the two of them worked at thinly slicing the remains of one elk quarter and draping the results over the dry, barkless branches of a nearby dead spruce to dry. Einar wanted to build a proper jerky drying rack, set it out in the sun where drying would take place at a better rate, but lacking any nearby willows he contented himself with the spruce, confident that it was still too early in the year to have to worry about flies, an extra day or two of drying time no disaster. Beyond his desire to preserve the meat against the coming of warm weather and insect pests was a need on Einar’s part to produce a quantity of more easily portable travel food against a time when more mobility might be required.
The tiny basin with its wind-sheltering terrain and surrounding timber had offered them a refuge, a concealed spot in which to quietly live out the remainder of the winter, but he knew it might not contain resources sufficient to recommend itself as a more permanent location. This they would not know for certain until the snow was gone for good and they observed the summer patterns of the elk and deer, but even should the spot turn out to be a long-term home for them, the life they were living demanded a constant readiness to pick up and move on.
These things were not spoken as the pair worked, words not needed and an easy silence settling over the clearing, Einar seeming to know right when to hand Liz another slab of partially frozen elk and she working in concert to help him fill empty branches with thin, already-drying slices. The only interruptions came in the form of Will’s occasional demands for food, these desires heralded now not only by his accustomed grunting and squealing, but increasingly put into words, or something like them. Somewhat early, Liz thought, for a little one to be doing much speaking, but she was not surprised. The boy’s father, when not in one of his silent moods, had quite a bit to say, himself, once he got going on a subject. Must be something of an inherited trait. She smiled, shook her head and glanced about in search of Einar, who had disappeared while she was watching Will.
Soon returning from inside the shelter, Einar deposited a carefully-tied bundle of cloth in the snow at Liz’s feet. She glanced it over, squinting skeptically at Einar. “What’s this? You’re planning on doing some parachuting? Base jumping from the canyon rim, perhaps?”
Einar laughed, flashed her a wild look which seemed to say, hey, not a bad idea…! And for a moment she almost regretted making the suggestion. “Not with this rig, I’m not! No, just wanted to see how this chute would do for a jerky-smoking tent. Figured with a little smoke and just a little warmth, we could really speed up the process, add some flavor at the same time. I’d wanted to do this for the moose, back when we were staying down in the canyon, but never really got the chance. White chute will blend right in against the snow, too. We’ll have to be careful about the smoke, maybe only do it after dusk just to minimize the chances of anyone spotting it, but once we get the tent set up we’ll be all ready for other game, too. Ready to process stuff for the warmer weather.”
“Oh, yes. I like that idea. It really will help things to dry faster, and will keep the flies away once things start to warm up. Where do you want to build it? Right here by the shelter?”
Leaning back and inspecting the over-arching ceiling of spruce and fir boughs, Einar shook his head. “Let’s put it over in that cluster of spruces near where we’ve been hanging the meat. Not as convenient because we have to carry the jerky strips over there, and will need to build a rack since there’s not a good, dead tree to hang the strips on, but I like the way the branches are so thick over there and will help disperse any smoke we may make during the daytime hours. Just don’t want to risk doing it out in the open here in the clearing.”
Still studying the evergreen canopy overhead, Einar managed to get himself slightly out of balance and momentarily lose his place in the world, reeling and falling hard into a sitting position before he could catch himself. This so delighted Will that Einar quite forgot to be irritated with himself for the oversight, remaining there in the snow for a good two minutes as the child laughed, waved his arms in an exaggerated imitation of his father’s failed attempts to prevent the fall, and plopped himself repeatedly down in the spruce needles. Seeing Will’s delight Einar repeated the process, this time falling harder and meeting rather uncomfortably with a rock that lurked just beneath the surface of the crusty snow and nearly knocked his breath out with its impact, but Will laughed nonetheless, and so did Einar.
Liz finally put an end to these antics, scooping Will up out of his spruce enclosure and taking Einar by the arm. “Enough, you two! You’d better stop this before you both end up all soaking wet and black and blue with bruises.”
Einar struggled to his feet, brushing the snow from pants and elbows and pausing for a moment to catch his breath. “Oh, we were just learning to fall. A person has got to learn to fall, sooner or later.”
“Well, it looks like you’re both becoming experts, in that case! Let’s have some lunch before we get back to processing that elk, ok? There’s still some squirrel stew from last night. I’ll heat it up.”
Sometime not long after noon—squirrel stew having been enjoyed and work resumed—the pleasant monotony of elk-drying was disturbed by a distant rumble which Liz mistook at first for thunder and Einar heard as the approach of several large helicopters. Eyes wide and white as they met Liz’s, he scrambled without hesitation into the shelter and slid the ever-present flat rock over their shallow fire pit, cutting off all further air to whatever coals might linger and precluding a flareup which might have given away their position. By the time he made it back outside the sound had subsided entirely, leaving behind and anxious silence into which the two of them stared, ears straining for any further clue as to the origin of the commotion. Nothing. Too long and sustained for thunder, and if the rumblings had been airborne in origin, the craft must have changed direction and disappeared. Or—Einar reflexively lowered himself to the ground at the thought—dropped below the canyon rim and continued their approach. If that was the case they would know soon enough, and not waiting to find out, he hurriedly motioned for Liz to follow him beneath Will’s spruce tree, crouching at its base and waiting.
Nothing. No further sound, save, after several good minutes of silence, Liz’s voice, soft and steady, unsure as she was what Einar might be thinking, how far away she might find him. “I think it was rocks. Falling rocks, in the canyon. It wasn’t helicopters.”
Silence, Einar thinking. The pattern fit, the tone of the rumbling. Springtime. Thawing. Lots of things started moving, rocks, even, freed up by the freeze-and-thaw of fall, early spring, broken, waiting only for a softening of the ice that held them.