Sun coming up over the ridge as Einar, Liz and their guests worked to slice mostly frozen elk meat for jerky, pile of prepared slices quickly growing on the slab of clean granite Liz had provided for the purpose. Will, not yet quite old enough to be handed a knife of his own so he could participate in the work but clearly wishing to help, balanced his way from one person to the next, occasionally taking an unsupported step when the next knee or shoulder was a bit too far away. This greatly delighted Susan, who set aside her work and encouraged the little one to let go and walk to her. Four wobbly steps, but he did it, changing course at the last minute to pursue Muninn, who sat watching the jerky-slicing with great interest from his perch on Einar’s shoulder. Will could not quite reach the bird, stood on tiptoe against his father’s side and made a well-controlled lunge for a handful of tail feathers, but missed when the raven saw what was happening and took a timely hop to the side. Tumbling to the floor beside Einar, Will squealed in delight as the raven hopped down beside him and gently twisted a bit of hair in his beak.
Susan laughed. “It looks like the raven remembers his job here. You know, he never would approach either of us after you folks left. Just sat in the spruce outside by the deck and watched through the windows late in the afternoon and in the evenings, trying to catch a glimpse of you. During the day he would be gone. I’d always see him flying off in the same direction about daylight, and returning from a different one, so I think he had a big circuit he was making, probably up to the mine and over the ridge. Bud and I thought as springtime really got started down there some kind of instinct might kick in and he’d go off in search of other ravens, start a family, but he never did deviate from that routine of his. You folks are his family now, it seems, and he sure is glad to be home.”
Einar held out an arm, and the bird hopped up onto it, settling on his shoulder. “Kinda glad to have the old buzzard back here with us. Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Bud chimed in, “but as you said, no way we’d come up here just to bring back the bird. Come to take you folks out of here, Asmundson. If you’ll go. Take you down the hill.”
Eyes going dark at the suggestion, Einar focused intently for a time on the meat he was slicing, cold-tremors disappearing from his hands as he added several neat, precise strips to the pile before answering with a shake of his head. “You know we can’t do that. Search may have tapered off, feds moved their focus to other matters, but the minute we put ourselves down there where random contacts with other people are more likely…well, you know that’s how this sort of thing ends. No. Got a lot to teach our little boy, up here. Lot of life for him to live.”
“Hey, I know it. Not suggesting you folks move on into town and start parading around in the streets with your buckskins and atlatls and all and wait for the feds to notice, or anything like that. Simply suggesting a little drop in elevation, maybe a place with a few more resources so you’re not having to fight so hard to get by, all the time. Which would have the added advantage of confusing the heck out of anybody who’s still lookin’ for you, because it would be such a break in the pattern!”
“It’d be the end, Kilgore.”
“Yeah, end of you always having to look over your shoulder, keep watch at night and scramble inside to put out the fire whenever you hear a plane in the distance. Wouldn’t have to be the end of anything else. Could be a new start.”
Einar just shook his head, kept slicing jerky, and the tracker let it go for the moment, silently musing as he worked. You wouldn’t know what to do with it, would you? With the end of the search, a chance to live what most folks would consider a more normal, settled life. It’d probably kill ya before a year was out. You need the running, don’t you? The struggle. I get it. Don’t know about your Lizzie, though. Seems she might appreciate a break from all this, just a year or two while the little one does some growing. Got to be some way to make it work for everyone…
By the time the sun had reached an angle where it really began to warm the little tent—and thaw the meat they were trying to slice, rendering the work more difficult—the job was nearly finished. As they worked, Susan had further detailed goings-on in the valley, start of the season for her greenhouse business, local politics in Culver Falls—Sheriff Watts had, because of his vocal opposition to the former federal occupation of the town, become a very popular local figure and probably could have reached state or even national office, had he been inclined to give up his post as Sheriff—and the latest news about her grandchildren.
Liz found the conversation quite pleasant, these little scenes of a quiet, settled life as told by Susan; Einar was just glad he didn’t have to be any closer than he currently was to the crowd and bustle she was describing. Three guests were plenty to deal with, and the more seldom they could put in their appearances, the better. He did however, find a fair amount of intelligence value in Susan’s telling of local events down in the valley. Seemed Kilgore must have been close to right when he described not only an end to the active search that has been based just outside the town, but a general loss of interest on the part of the feds, This, had he allowed himself to indulge, would have brought to Einar a significant degree of relief, as it meant the various planes, choppers and ground operations they spotted from time to time more than likely bore no relation to any sort of ongoing search, and that they could, with the taking of reasonable precautions—no building of three-story split-log mansions out in the middle of forty acre meadows paving the driveway with mud-and-pine-needle bricks and putting up fences to keep a herd of seventy or eighty mountain goats, for instance, and he laughed silently at the thought—likely live out their lives in the high country not only free of actual interference, but of the constant need to be on their toes and expecting attack, all the time. A tempting vision, but he knew better. Down that path lay only complacency, discovery and eventual capture. Not going that way. Not with his family, and not had he been alone. Not a good way for all of this to end. Liz was staring at him, apparently waiting for him to answer something, and he realized that being lost in thought, he had failed to hear the question. He looked at her, smiled, hoped she might repeat it.
“Don’t you think it sounds like something we can consider? Expanding our territory, maybe moving down a little lower where we’ll have access to a wider variety of plants and critters through the summer, and a little less struggle when winter comes? Maybe this is the time for it.”
Frustration. Of course she hadn’t heard him, the silent words in his head, but he would have hoped there to be no need, hoped she was thinking similarly. “We’ll talk about it.”
That, she understood. The conversation could wait. “Well, let’s get this jerky hung up and drying, then!” Susan exclaimed, rising from her eat by the tent wall. “It looks like we’ve got quite a pile of it. What are you going to use for racks?”
A sheepish grin from Einar as he remembered his failed willow-gathering mission several days prior. “Was going to use willows. Started out to find some a few days ago, and instead found smoke in the canyon, and at the end of the smoke, you folks. Never did get around to cutting the willows. So looks like you three’ll have to stand in here and hold the jerky while it dries. Link hands maybe, and form a circle. You’ll kinda freeze at night, but will thaw out when the sun comes up. At these temperatures, the whole process may take a few days…”
“Huh. You can forget that!” Bud bellowed. “Come on, Rog. Let’s go find the fella some willows. On your feet, Asmundson. If we do the finding, you got to do the carrying.
Susan laughed and began helping Liz gather up the sliced jerky strips as the three men set off, Muninn flapping delightedly along beside Einar.