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.