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.”
“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.”
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.