29 March, 2015

29 March 2015

Will diverted from his elk-stealing and the pirated meat recovered, work progressed on the filling of the racks, smoker soon full and Bud and Roger stepping away to lash together a third drying rack, seeing that they had more meat slices than rack space, as things stood.  Quite a supply it would be, by the time they got it all done.  The smoker fire they would not light until after dark, Einar not wanting to risk such a smoke signature by daylight and the meat, he knew, quite capable of beginning to dry all on its own, even in the absence of the warmth and smoke of the fire.  Wanting to prevent the raven from so easily robbing the racks, he began skewering the meat on spare willow wands whose ends he sharpened to ease the task, sticking these into the lashing which held together the racks.

Einar worked quietly beside Liz, each simply enjoying the presence of the other, no words needed.  Spring, things coming alive, budding, waiting, wanting to burst forth in a riot of green, new life reaching for the sun, and Einar felt it, too.  Wanted it.  Wanted life.  Was interrupted in his quiet musings by Bud, who had finished assembling his new rack and rejoined the group gathered around the current project.

 “So.  About comin’ down with us when we go.  Given it any more thought?”


“You’d be just what we need though, Asmundson, with things picking up momentum down there and folks getting serious about resistance to the way things are going, politically.  If you don’t think you’re cut out for leadership—a point on which you know the two of us disagree—you could always train.  Teach.  You know, like you did during your SERE days.”

“SERE?”  Liz asked.

“Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.  This wayward fella of yours never told you about that?  About how he spent several years teaching after stepping away from his job with the travel agency, or wherever the heck he worked after coming back from Rhodesia?”

“No, he never told me.  Travel agency?  What…?”

“Huh.  Figured he would have told you.  Yeah, travel agency or something.  Sure did travel a lot, anyhow.  All over the world, real fast-paced life, five or six different passports...  Right, Asmundson?

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Kilgore.”

“Ha!  That’s right.  You know nothing.  Nothing at all...  You know, for a guy who’s spent years on the run downing federal helicopters, blowing stuff up doing all manner of other unconventional and downright illegal things to avoid capture over that time…well, you sure do take that ancient Nondisclosure Agreement of yours seriously, don’t you?”

Einar shrugged, turned away before the tracker could see the hint of a smile that crept across his face.  Did seem a bit ironic, come to think about it…  But he’d never minded a bit of irony in his life.

“Well,” Kilgore boomed, “guess you’ll just have to ask him about it, sometime, since he won’t talk about it with us ‘intruders’ about.  But, back to SERE.  That isn’t a secret.  We can talk about that, can’t we, Asmunson?”

Einar shrugged again, set another completed skewer on the nearest drying rack and busied himself with filling a third.  Didn’t particularly like Kilgore’s line of questioning, this delving into a past whose details he did not always like to recall.  The tracker seemed to get the hint, for once, and let the matter drop, though Einar knew he hadn’t heard the last of any of it.

For the remainder of the afternoon the four of them worked away, all racks filled with elk strips before the sun set and a fire prepared and ready to light in the smoker as darkness approached.  Will spent a fair amount of time on his mother’s back and on Susan’s, adding his own lively commentary to the conversation as everyone worked.

Evening, smoker started, supper eaten and everyone retreating to tent and shelter, with the exception of Einar, who was taking the first watch with the smoker, adding wood when necessary to keep the process going through the night, and Liz, who after feeding Will and getting the child tucked snugly into the sleeping bag, decided to join him.

“So, tell me about these survival and evasion classes you taught, that Bud mentioned.  That sounds like an interesting job.”

“Yeah, it was an interesting job alright.  Was kind of refreshing after the jungle, and Rhodesia, and then the assignment I took after coming back from Africa, the ‘travel agency’ job Bud kept trying to get me to talk about.  It was awfully interesting, too, but at times felt like I was fighting another losing war, another one that the political powers-that-be had already decided we would be losing…  SERE was different.  I knew that each of those guys I helped to train would have a far better chance of coming through…well, a situation like the one I’d faced in the jungle, if they ever encountered such, after the training was complete.  That was something real, something solid that nobody could take away from them, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

“So, it was mostly survival training?  Skills like you’ve taught me, out here?”

Einar laughed softly, a sound like the wind in dead-dry oak leaves, nearly devoid of humor.  “Oh yeah, there was a lot of that.  Lot of other stuff, too.  We had to prepare them for what they would face if the evasion part didn’t work out, and they ended up being captured, too.  I was good at that part, because I’d been there.  The interrogations.  Too good, maybe, but nobody said so at the time.  In fact, I ended up running that part of the courses more often than not, because they knew I would keep it true to life.  We tried to keep everything very real, replicate situations as well as we could, prepare people…

“Your fellow instructors…did they know that part of what you’d been through in the jungle?”

“Oh, no.  Not sure I could have done it if they’d known.  At that time…well, think I was pretty good at keeping everything stashed away in separate little boxes in my mind, as far as the memories and my own experience.  Keeping it real separate from the present, almost like it had been someone else back there in that cage.  Was the only way I could keep it together, doing work like that.  There were people who knew, of course, which is part of what got me the job, but they weren’t the ones I was working with every day.”

“It was weird sometimes, because a lot of the training is based off of the experiences of people who’d been captured and held in various conflicts, interrogated, and sometimes that would get talked about, but I never let them know, never talked about my own experiences, though I’m pretty sure some of the guys must have guessed.  We did have to test the scenarios, we instructors, some of us standing in for the students to kind of get things refined and ready for them, and after a while I ended up being the one everything was tested out on, all these different…interrogation techniques, because everyone knew I could take it.  Would take it.  Interesting times.”

Einar…”  She was quiet for a minute, held him tight where they leaned together against an aspen beside the smoker tent.  “What do you think about all of that, now?  Do you think it was a good idea?”

“Sure it was.  Sure.  Was doing something worthwhile.  Just like I am now…”  And he was asleep.

21 March, 2015

21 March 2015

The drying and smoking project had come none too soon, a fact which became obvious to all with the arrival of morning, a soft breeze rolling up from the valley and clear skies promising the warmest day of the young year.  Liz, rising early to get the fires going, doubted it had even frozen in the night.  Surely the elk would not have lasted much longer in its current state, for even with the hard rind which had formed on the meat over its weeks of freezing in the trees, the flies would soon have found it and begun staking their claims.  Time to finish the work of preservation, and remembering how hard Einar had worked for that elk, tracking it through the rotten snow of early spring and nearly losing his life to the elements while carrying back the first quarter through a snow squall, she found herself tremendously grateful that they had not lost any of the meat.

Despite the warming temperatures Einar had once again endured a rather cold night, results of his splash in the icy cave spring remaining with him and body still mottled purple and deeply chilled when he crawled out of the sleeping bag to join Liz at the fire.  As usual, he was far less troubled by this situation than were those around him, finding it, if anything, quite routine and not seeming in the least alarmed when his usual routine of swinging arms and stomping feet did little to restore circulation to his numbed extremities.

Kilgore was up, also, had been crouching against the trunk of an aspen some distance from the shelter studying a map, and soon found his way over to the fire, also.

“You kids sure do choose some high, desolate places to settle, don’t you?  Looks like this spot is right smack in the middle of one of the largest solid expanses of black, tangled timber this side of the Continental Divide, and that’s saying a lot!”

“Trying to avoid unwanted visitors.  Looks like we didn’t get out nearly far enough…”  Einar’s voice was dry, raspy, and Liz put on a pot of spruce needle tea to heat, hoping he would drink.

“Nah, you’re plenty far out.  I might joke about it, but you and I both know that it’s the only reason you’ve made this thing work for so long, this evading business.  They’d have had you years ago, if you’d insisted on hanging around the edges of civilization, sneaking into town now and then for the stuff you thought you couldn’t live without.  That’s how they end up getting folks, every time.  You made this thing work, you mangy old buzzard.”

Einar shrugged.  “We’re still here.”

“Right.  Yes, you are.  Which brings us to the point I’ve been trying to make, about how you really can expand your territory now, if you want to.  Give yourselves more room, more elevation variation and access to more game this summer, more berries and all the other food plants that make life so much better, out here!”

A slow shake of Einar’s head as he rose, left the fire and prepared to start the day’s work.  “Not got me convinced on that one.  Sure, they may have taken most of their resources off this search, but there’ll still be plenty of folks out there who would very much like to resolve this case one way or another, and no way do I want to take my family down there where they’re more likely to be exposed to that.  Looking like we may be pretty permanent residents of the high country, up here.”

A quiet little half smile from Kilgore, who was almost never quiet, and Einar might have realized its significance, had he been looking at the tracker as he spoke, instead of studying his own hands.  “Well, we’ll see,” and Kilgore joined him in trimming the previous day’s harvest of willow wands, lashing them together to make drying and smoking racks for the remaining elk meat.

Will was not content to ride on his mother’s back that morning, nor to be held by Susan as she worked, striving at every opportunity to go off on his own exploring, or, when no one was watching, balancing on his ever-more-steady legs and competing with Muninn to snatch bits of meat before they could be hung on the racks.   Finally both raven and little mountain man were shooed away by the adults as they worked to finish their task, Liz settling Will on a blanket in front of the shelter and providing him with what she hoped would be enough fascinating objects to hold his attention for a good while.

Some minutes later, everyone working quickly to get the job finished up, Liz realized that she had not heard from Will in several minutes, growing a bit alarmed and glancing around in search.  Not where she had left him, busy as he had been sorting, stacking and chewing on a pile of spruce cones on a blanket in the patch of sunlight just out front of the shelter, and Einar, seeing her dismay, joined in the search.  They did not have far to look, Einar putting a silent hand on Liz’s arm and pointing.  There on a bare patch of ground behind a stand of stunted, shaded little subalpine firs sat little Will, looking proud as could be at the size of the pile of elk strips lying on the ground before him, one dangling half -chewed and covered with slobber out of his mouth and the raven, even as they watched, landing nearby and hopping up to deliver his latest contribution to the top of the heap.  Liz wanted to rush forward and amend the situation, but Einar, shaking with silent laughter, stopped her.

“Quite a scheme those two have going, isn’t it?  That old vulture.  Now he’s got an excuse for his thieving ways, and little Snorri comes out ahead on the deal, because he’s got something real solid to sink those brand new teeth into.”

“Yes, raw elk.  Our son is teething on raw elk.”

“A lot chewier than the cooked kind, if you ask me.  Lot better for cutting teeth.”

At which Roger, Bud and Susan, who had paused in their work to watch the unfolding drama, could contain their hilarity no longer, and burst out laughing.

01 March, 2015

1 March 2015

The menfolk off on their willow-gathering expedition--this time, Liz could hope, the others would bring Einar back in good time should he stray and end up inclined to spend two or three more nights in the timber--Susan held Will and helped clean up after the jerky-slicing.  Far from being alarmed at the presence of additional humans when his world normally contained only two besides himself, Will appeared immensely curious about everything Susan did, following the motions of her hands as she helped his mother gather up knives, containers and the few remaining scraps of elk which had proven too small or too tough to turn into strips for drying.  Susan paused, handing him a feather that had been lost by the raven and smiling as his eyes grew large at the sight.

“This little guy sure seems to be doing well, doesn’t he?”

“Oh, he’s saying more and more words, walking all around the shelter and taking steps without holding onto anything, a lot of times, and getting into all sorts of trouble.  I just know as soon as the snow finishes melting out, he’s going to be running all over the place outside, just like his Dad.”

“And you?”

“Oh, I’ll be running around after him, no doubt.  After both of them.  In different directions!”

Susan nodded, let the topic go; had meant more by her question, wanted to give Liz the opportunity to speak, but she had spoken, and that was good enough.  Liz, though, knew what Susan had really been asking, waited until the older woman released the rather squirmy Will onto the patch of well-trampled and hard-packed snow in front of the shelter, sat down beside her on an aspen log to watch him play and explore.

“It’s the life I’ve chosen, you know,” and her voice was quiet, but resolute.  “May not always be exactly the way I would like it to be, but I knew it was sure to be a struggle going in, and I chose to be with him.  If he wants to stay up here…I’m in it for the long haul.”

“Oh, Lizzie.  I wasn’t suggesting anything else.”

“I know you weren’t.  It’s just that I’ve been thinking so much since you came, thinking of what our lives could be if we did like Bud proposed and came down, went someplace where the daily things would be just a little less challenging, and what that could mean for us.   So I was talking more to myself there than to you really, I guess.  Trying to remind myself.  It’s not that Will cares.  He’s happy anywhere right now so long as he’s with us, and as he gets older, he will be happy with what he knows, what’s familiar to him, I know that, and me…well, for the most part I enjoy our lives up here.  We have plenty really, most of the time, and I know we can go on providing for ourselves with hunting and trapping, digging roots in the summer. It’s a pretty good existence.  It’s just…I don’t want Will to have to grow up without his father, and sometimes when Einar disappears for a day or two the way he does, I get so scared that he’s just not going to make it back.  He fully intends to, I know, and so far he always has, but…well, you’ve seen him when he gets back from some of these things!  From sitting in the snow for a day or two, or whatever he does.  I try not to be afraid for him, but sometimes I just can’t help it.”

Susan put a gentle hand on her arm.  “Do you really think things would be much different if you moved down lower, like Bud was suggesting?”

Liz shrugged, a momentary look of desperation passing across her face before she regained her composure, reached down and handed Will his prized raven feather, which he had lost in the deeper snow at the edge of the clearing behind their log-bench.  “It would probably be worse, wouldn’t it?”

“I’m just remembering the last time you were at our house.”

“Oh, I’d rather not remember that.  How it was for him, I mean.  You’re right, I know. We’re better off up here, for a lot of different reasons.  Sometimes I just wish I knew what to do.  To make things different for him.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want you to do anything.  If things are going to be different for him…well, he has to want them to be.  That’s not something you can do for him, and I’m very sure he wouldn’t want you feeling responsible for the way he chooses to handle these things, either.  All you can do is what you’re already doing.  Just be there, treat him like a human being, be willing to listen to him when he wants to talk about any of it. I know you’re in a rough position, wanting to protect him but needing even more to make sure he’ll be there for this little boy…  There’s no easy solution, for him or for you.  But I do know what I’ve seen in him when he’s holding his son, watching him explore.  I see a man who will live up to the task, and who’s giving you all he knows how to give.”

“I know.”

With which the conversation ended, a rustling in the chokecherry scrub on the low ridge above the shelter letting them know they were no longer alone.  Bearing bundles of willows, Roger, Bud and Einar tromped down the ridge between islands of rotten snow, avoiding the stuff wherever they could so as not to leave any more sign than already crisscrossed the area.  To the women, it appeared they had harvested far more willows than could possibly be required for the construction of the single jerky-smoking rack, a fact whose reason became clear when they began picking up snatches of conversation from the returning trio.

“Gonna have to put them in under the trees so they don’t show up as big old weird geometrical shapes from the air,” Bud proclaimed, making a sweeping gesture at the nearby stands of timber, “but we’ve got plenty of room to do it.  Can have this whole doggone elk done in no time, two, three days at most, and you folks’ll be ready to be mobile again.”

“Always good to be ready.  No harm in being ready, but like I said, no plans to move on anytime soon, unless we have to.”

“I know it, I know it  But ‘have to’ can take a lot of different forms, especially out here, so we’d better be getting to work on that elk critter.  Even if you don’t go anywhere, the drying’ll keep the stuff from starting to rot and attract flies as these afternoons warm up. Unless  raising maggots was part of the plan, of course!”

“They have their uses.  Good for medicine if you’ve got a badly infected foot, good for food if all else fails, but no.  Rather have the elk, since we’ve got it.”

Relieving themselves of their bundles, Roger and Bud took a seat on the log-bench, Einar a bit slower to part with his burden, and looking more closely, Liz saw why.  While the other two had made the trip with little more than a few damp spots on boot toes and knees where they had crouched to cut the willows, Einar had somehow managed to end up drenched from head to foot in water which was already beginning to freeze in places on his clothing and in his hair as the sun san behind the ridge and cold settled into the basin, stiffening his movements and causing him to have to work hard not to shiver, now that he had finished climbing.  She went to him, took the willows and added them to the stack.

“What did you do, find a lake down there?”

“Better,” he grinned, knocking one stiff-frozen sleeve against an aspen to remove some of the ice.  “Found a little hollow in the limestone, in an outcropping we’d never even seen before.  Looks like it…might go in a good distance, might even turn into a cave, and…”

“And how about some dry clothes before you finish telling me?”

“Oh, these’ll be fine just as soon as I can…” whacked the other sleeve against the aspen, again scattering ice crystals, stomped around a bit in a barely-effective effort to begin restoring some flexibility to his pants, which had also begun freezing, “soon as I can get some of this…stuff to kind of…”

Roger, typically quiet and undemonstrative but under the circumstances unable to contain himself any longer, burst out laughing at Einar’s rather less-than-typical way of drying his clothes, Bud stepping in and offering to help the de-icing along with the help of a heavy aspen staff he’d picked up to help himself with the last half of the climb.  None of which was to prove necessary in the end, Liz shaking her head, hurrying away from the little group and starting a fire.