Stephen watched over Katarina, watched as her arm slowly healed. Her mind slowly healed, and the snow eventually melted. Spring came and with it a new beginning for Kat. She began to open more, they spoke of wildlife and nature. He taught her what leaves could be crushed into tea, which berries could be eaten straight from the bush and which needed to be mashed and boiled first. He taught her how to sew so that she might make herself some clothing from his tattered materials. He taught her to cook so she was more helpful around the log cabin. He would go hunting and she would keep the cabin warm, clean and have a hot meal on the table when he arrived.
“I was thinking we need a garden” Kat suggested over breakfast one morning, the oats were beginning to tire her. Stephen had plentiful eggs, but she had enough of those when she was held captive by the dark man. She tried her best to keep her mind from revisiting that time, trailing too far into those memories often left her crying in bed for hours on end. It would cause a sickness in your stomach, a deep routed illness that you feel when you watch someone break an arm and the bone snaps; the sound and visual together cause your stomach to roll and pinch. She much preferred helping Stephen around the house and doing something with herself, it kept her mind busy too.
“That’s a wonderful idea” Stephen replied, scratching his fingers through the thick black/grey beard he had grown. Almost salt and peppery colouring with a touch of red for accentuation. He never liked the itchiness that it came with, but it certainly hid some of his wrinkles that he was beginning to grow self conscious of. Kat bounced around and tied her hair back as if she full of youthful aptitude and Stephen felt himself dragging his feet more, as if they were the epitome of his aging body.
“Then we can grow our own fruits and vegetables.” Katarina continued. Her face lit up as she described the garden, picturing the placement of dirt rows in her mind caused her excitement to grow.
“I already have a space you can use too” Stephen replied as he rounded his hand from the thick beard to the smoothness of his head. Shaved clean; he struggled some days to have a straight ear line where the beard ended and the sleek of his baldness began. The hair poking his lips was the biggest down fall, but he endured the annoyance hoping one-day Kat would kiss his lips behind the beard that she seemed to enjoy. She had even touched his cheek a few times, with the back of her hand to outline the borders of hair. He yearned for more touch from her, yet he honoured her space and continued to wait.
“Really?!” Kat sprung from the table wanting to see the area for the garden and she wasted no time throwing on her jacket.
The spring sun was warming the ranch more each day. With so much snow melting, Kat was able to see the complete landscape of the surrounding area. Having previously been buried by snow as it was untouched, new fences had appeared, burn barrels made of old steel gas cans. There were two large grain silos framing the art work that was Stephen’s land. The silos long past expired had there rooves caving in and the sides were beginning to buckle. An old truck was rusted beyond recognition next to the silos and further east of those was a small waxen trailer, long abandoned. The glass was broken out of the windows and the aluminum set of stairs were hanging at a dangerous angle. Kat had grown curious one day to investigate the trailer and had found a family of overly large raccoons had commandeered the place. One hissed so loudly at her that she feels backwards into the snow, fearing it would lunge and claw out her eye ball.
To the west of the decrepitude scene, laid Stephen’s newer buildings. The small wooden barn where the pigs and chickens lived. Kat thoroughly enjoyed feeding the pigs each evening with scraps. She named the two pigs; Wilbur and Charlotte. The chickens too got carrot peels, potato skins and their own egg shells to eat. Kat thought it morbid they ate their own egg shells, but food is food. Stephen taught her how to fetch the eggs from the chickens without disturbing. They were more skittish since the wolf had taken some and a few had even stopped laying. They were destined for the cold shack if they didn’t start soon, Kat warned them one evening. She had to watch the tone of her voice, even raising that too high would stress the chickens causing an egg or two less the next day.
The cold storage was the smallest building on the land, with a roof no more than 6 feet off the ground, Stephen had to duck to walk in. Kat was told there were meat cutting tools, a single deep freeze and hooks for hanging game. She had chosen to steer clear of seeing skinned animals dripping with blood, she did enjoy eating them and figured the sight of them hanging might ruin her taste for the meat.
The area Stephen led her to now was a large fenced off area, with several snow piles still attempting to melt in the nearing sun. Katarina could see the brown earth below the thawing winter, small twigs and sprigs of grass poked through; eager to begin their growth.
“I had a small garden here last year. Not much since I am just one man and it’s a lot of work.” He opened the teetering gate and waved his arm in welcoming introduction of the inanimate area. “You’re welcome to weed, plant and grow what you like.”
“It’s perfect!” Kat exclaimed hopping like a bunny into the garden, she began throwing armfuls of snow clumps over the fence straight away. “It will be so grand, we can have fresh salad every night for summer dinners!” Her face glowed and Stephen smiled at the enthusiasm she showed. It warmed his heart to see her so happy.
“I can work on the truck later this week and hopefully go into town for seeds” Stephen offered.
“I’ll help you” Kat replied with her back still turned to him, her long red hair tied in a pony. It swung entrancingly in the open space behind her back. She had really turned around since Stephen first found her. She had begun making her own clothes and created them snug fitting to show off her body. With spring warming the surroundings, she wore a smaller jacket that she had sewn from the large red fur jacket. Stephen didn’t mind her cutting up his clothes, it gave him pride to watch her form a new article from an old ratty one that he no longer wore. He couldn’t help but watch her move, a little bit too long sometimes that she would catch his eyes lingering.
“Help me?” Stephen inquired, not sure which part she was offering help for.
“To fix the truck silly” Kat threw a snowball at him which caught him off guard. He stepped back a foot then laughed and threw one back.
“It’s been sitting in the same snow bank with a crumpled hood for months now” Kat continued as she pushed, kicked and shovelled the snow out of her garden with both hands and feet.
“I’ll get you a shovel” Stephen called as he walked off to his small barn, he enjoyed watching her dance about trying to clear the snow, but he also knew the energy in that would not last long. He trudged through the snow, still hearing Kat laughing behind him. He could still picture the tuffs of snowing flying up around her head as she kicked it. The red of her full pony tale whishing through the air at the same time the snow was forming plumes in the sky. Floating softly down and landing just on the other side of the fence, sometimes not even close.
Stephen pulled the barn door firmly to get it to open, the melting of the snow caused a heavy, sticky door jam to form behind the door. The harder he pulled, the larger the fresh forming bank became. With not much drainage on the ranch he might have to remove the snow by hand. Shovelling and barrelling snow out by hand did not sound too fun. He had moved in just after the snow had melted last year, so he had yet to experience it during the melt process. Apparently, there was no slope to his land, no way for the melt to travel out.
He kicked hard to break the pile formed by the door. The wet slush made his boot slip and he fell on his bottom with a hard smack. He looked quickly in the direction of where the bubbly woman was cleaning the garden. Thankfully she was still playing in the snow as a happy child would and had not seen his klutzy maneuver. He stood achingly, his bones were getting too old for this junk. Stress was starting to take its toll on him. He wondered if he should give up this life and move back to the city. Where the comforts and ease of prepared food was just at your fingertips. For three times the price, he thought begrudged. Grabbing the shovel off the hook, his larger pig snorted at him. Almost hearing his thoughts, the pig turned and kicked a clump of mud at him.
Stephen had to slam the barn door just to have it close again and walked back to Kat. Sore and a little grumpy he produced the shovel to her.
“What happened to you?” She chuckled. He had left her just a moment before with a clean, dry shirt and he returns now with mud smeared half way up his chest and the right side of his body dripping with mud water.
“I’m going to have a shower” He growled. Kat stood and watched him stomp back to the cabin. She felt uncomfortable when he flipped a switch like this, suddenly grumpy was never fun to be around. She tried to dream up what his wife would have looked like. He was older than her, at least by 20 years she guessed. Her legs and arms felt tired from doing work as well, but she had also been tied to a bed for years. She could only imagine how much muscle she had lost.
His shoulders were sunk as he opened the cabin door and disappeared. She imagined his wife would have been old as well, happily crocheting blankets by the fire. She pictured a woman with her hair tied up in a graying bun, the wilderness forcing her to age before her time. Looking older than her husband, whom kept young and healthy by hiking and hunting. Him doing all the hard work around the cabin, Kat doubted his wife did much more than cooked for him.
She shrugged the thoughts away, he had no pictures to show Katarina anyhow. She had asked a few times, and he would just look at her with sadness and walk away. She didn’t even know how long the wife had been gone, or how she passed. All she knew was that this man was lonely and had been this way for some time. She looked at him almost as a father figure. He was blunt and brutally to the point, but Kat had no interest in his company other than the security he offered. Food and shelter were a bonus as well. She felt bad some days, watching him get up off the floor after a long night’s sleep. His hand pressing against his back as if he were sore. She could only imagine, how those old bones ached. The last thing she would want is to share a bed with him.
Kat enjoyed his company and did look at him as a handsome older man but had no desires beyond that. She turned her attention back to the clearing of snow. It took her several hours, but she stood back and felt fulfilled with her hand work. The fence was wooden, with a single piece of wood connecting each pile that went into the ground. It was only maybe 3 feet tall, but it was a beautiful border to her now open garden. Most of the remnants of snow removed, Kat could see all the dirt mounds from previous years. She knelt and dug her hands into the ground around a small brown sprig. The dirt was still cold, yet the frost had left it long before. The dirt clumps broke easily between her fingers and fell back to earth.
She dug a little deeper to follow the brown root, trying to determine what it could be. The feeling of dirt pushing up into her finger nails gave her a strange thrill. Her hand stopped almost a foot into the earth on a solid object. Firm yet slightly plush, she formed a fist around the smoothness of the object and pulled. She shrieked and jumped up from the ground. Her knees and arms now covered in dirt she ran to the cabin to get Stephen.
Stephen was basking in the heat of his shower, the healing effect the water was having on his now sore back. He stood and allowed it to cascade over him, the steam filling the small washroom added to the warmth.
“Stephen!” Kat’s voice filled the cabin, it was shrill and loud and almost made him slip in the shower.
“Stephen!” She yelled again, her voice just on the other side of the leather curtain, he feared something happened, possibly she hurt herself. He slammed the water off and grabbed his folded towel off the toilet seat. Wrapping it around his lower half he exited the washroom as quickly as possible without slipping to fall again.
“What happened? What’s wrong?” His face sopping wet and full of concern. He was dripping water on the floor and Kat held the old brown potato out for him to see. The skin was smooth, but the eyes were starting to grow, small green sprigs shooting out from several directions.
“It’s a potato” He stated, a little irritated that he had almost killed himself getting out of the shower so quickly.
“I know!” She was almost vibrating from excitement and her eyes darted from the small vegetable to the large man standing in front of her. His shoulders bare and strong, they were wider than the bathroom opening. He had to turn just slightly to the side to exit completely. His muscles visible yet covered with a sheath of winter fat and warm black chest hair. His beard was growing longer and now reached to his collar bone which stuck out dramatically from her chest. His body boasted strength, strong but soft to not scare her away. He stood half naked another moment as he noticed her eyes were drawing him in her mind. He stood and allowed her to continue looking but when he reached a hand to her she turned back and headed out the cabin.
“It’s a potato that can grow into many more!” She hollered as she closed the cabin door. Stephen sighed and fell back into the bathroom to finish his shower he had been enjoying.
Kat was filthy by the time he convinced her to come in for lunch. It made him content to see her glowing the way she was. Talking a million words a minute about the other vegetable seeds and rotten pieces she had found. Even an old rotten pumpkin that she smashed and shoved back into the ground. She was talking of the seeds she was hoping to purchase in town. Sweet peas, carrots, tomatoes, she had big dreams for her little garden. Her green eyes were sparkling while dreaming of the things she could create.
“Okay, okay” He chuckled, “first things first. The funds have run dry, so we need to first take something for trade. I have not enough chickens or pigs to offer those and the eggs have run a little lean due to intruding fox or wolves. I will need to hunt for an animal to trade, possibly a black bear for a rug. Towns people always love thick hides.” Stephen was making a stacked sandwich for their lunch. He fried an egg and sliced some elk steak super thin. He was piling the ingredients high on the toasted bread while explaining to Katarina that seeds aren’t free.
“I know.” Her heart sunk to hear he couldn’t afford seeds, but how could she expect him to just keep footing the bill like he was. “I’ll come with you”
“There’s no need, you can stay and hold the fort down” He smiled softly at her, placing the delicious sandwich in front of her. The yolk precariously sitting on top of a pile of fried steak with onions and peppers. She pushed slightly on the top bread which caused the yolk to break, creating a cascade effect of the yolk becoming the sandwich sauce.
“I want to come” She looked at him with pleading eyes, showing genuine interest in coming. Even with bits of egg white and bread sticking from the corners of her mouth, she grinned.
“If that’s what you want” He shrugged as if it was nothing, but his heart skipped a beat to hear that she wanted to come. It had been too long since he had had a hunting partner.
“I’ll pack up and we’ll head out before it gets too late today” Stephen stuffed his sandwich down his throat in two bites only. Kat cut her messy food with a fork and knife and ate proper, as a princess only would for such a sandwich.
With Katarina’s belly full of warm elk sandwich, she piled on layers of clothing to prevent any chill touching her bones. The temperature was increasing quickly, but with snow still on the ground she had to ensure she would stay warm. Stephen had warned her they could be gone till late in the evening. He had even packed food for supper and brought a tent in case they strayed too far. She was excited for the adventure, it had been a long time since they had left the cabin together. The last time was when they had gone berry collecting, but her arm had still been in a sling. She felt useless trudging behind him with only one arm. She had only been able to carry one bucket, and with it being her left arm; she had to stop berry picking before it became too heavy. She smiled with the fond memory of Stephen teaching her as a parent would show a child. She had felt numb and dead, locked in a hidden dungeon by a captor she had not been happy in so long. The berry desert they had made that night was refreshing.
She looked forward to the hunt, she imagined the catch they would gain. She had full use of both her arms now, so she would not hinder Stephen’s hunt. Then they could travel to town and trade for seeds for her garden. She smiled widely and closed the damper on the wood stove as Stephen had instructed her before leaving the cabin.
“All ready?” Stephen had his reliable blue toque on, which contrasted his dark beard even more. The deep blue of the cotton on top made his deep sky-blue eyes sparkle almost. Kat nodded and loaded herself into the front of his old dog sled. She had learnt from previous trips it was useless to offer to hike, he enjoyed pushing he on the sled. He had said ‘it’s a waste of a good seat’, in referring to the sled being empty. With the snow nearly gone, Stephen pushed the sled from the back now. It no longer slid easily, but he insisted on bringing the sled. He knew there was no way even the two of them, with her arm healed; would they be able to pull a 500-pound bear from the woods. You cannot section one that you hope to skin and sell the hide as carpet.
The trees were filling out, green sprouting in every direction before the last hint of winter disappeared. Katarina took in the sights as Stephen struggled behind her to push the sled. The trail that they broke earlier had turned almost completely to mud, but still added to the beauty. The type that contrasted against the last straggling snow white mounds, the duke blue of the rushing river rushing; spilling over the banks from winter run off and the shamrock green shrubs. The sun was full high in the sky, almost tipping to the West signifying the downward spin of the day.
Birds were chirping high in the trees, communicating to other wild life that hunters were coming. With the leaves and twigs bare on the ground again, Stephen’s foot steps echoed far into the forest. Kat watched as the tree line grew on her left, like a wall of essence; the trees were thick and swaying as one in the wind. The hollowness between each misleading, as Kat could hear all types of noises stretching through. The trees sounding as chatter to the next, sending word of their location. She couldn’t imagine they would sneak up on anything with the amount of sound emitting from the creaking, dragging dog sled.
“How do we hunt a bear?” She called to Stephen behind her.
“We bait it in” He replied, sounding slightly out of breath after over an hour of pushing the heavy sled. His guns were located just behind Kat’s seat, along with a tent, food and a large jug of water. He also had a hunting bag with years of experience told life saving trinkets.
“Oh? Bait him with what?” Kat looked back now, tipping her weight to one side; causing Stephen to counter the pull on the old sled.
“I have some old scrap food we will use. We put it in a metal thin and the bears recognize it as people food and go for it. Otherwise, we just have to look for one. They are moving around eagerly right now. Trying to stay warm and get food in their bellies, this area should be teaming with them” Stephen explained and shifted his weight behind the sled to force it to turn slight right as the river made a bend.
“Can you call it in?” Kat asked and was answered by a laugh, she felt her face redden even without her looking back at him.
“No” He said between chuckles.
The sun fell lower in the sky, with the looming darkness came new, louder animal sounds. They flowed out from the wall of trees. Katarina became jumpy in her sled, even though she had the protection of a well seasoned hunts man behind her. Guns resting almost against her head, knives in a hunt bag not too far; every little sound made her nerves scream more.
“I think we’ve gone far enough for tonight.” Stephen stopped the sled. “We won’t be able to get this into the thickness of that forest, we will have to hike in further and make camp.” He started unloading gear from the sled and Kat stood, anticipating carrying of something but was surprised when Stephen loaded everything into his own arms. He loaded his gun and carried the second one, empty.
“I can carry something” She held her right arm out, it still felt weak at times, but she felt foolish carrying nothing.
“No, you don’t want to over do it too soon.” He turned to start the hike.
“I want to help” Kat stood her ground and was happily rewarded by Stephen turning and placing the smaller of the two guns into her hand.
“This is a 243 rifle” He looked her straight in the eye, he couldn’t see the green of her eyes as bright since the sun was almost below the horizon now. It had faded to a caramel brown reflection looking back at him.
“I’ll put a few shells in as long as you don’t shoot me” He joked with her as he pulled slender silver bullets from his pocket.
“Will it hurt my shoulder?” She asked, she didn’t recall ever shooting a gun. Most girls, she assumed; learnt from their daddies. She couldn’t remember her father or mother, so this must be the first gun she’s held.
“It will, if you don’t brace it back into your body.”
“Into my body?” Kat looked at the rifle, it was black and sleek, sexy almost. A scope fitted to the top was nearly a quarter the length of the gun. A black leather strap to secure over her shoulder. Stephen lifted the rifle from her hands and loaded it. He stepped behind her and pulled the gun up to her right shoulder.
“When you’re going to shoot, you need to push your body forward and pull the rifle back.” He jerked the gun backwards into her shoulder. Not hard, but enough that it made her body push back against his. He held it tight there and lowered his own head to her shoulder as if to look through the scope.
“You need to anticipate that it will knock you off your feet, otherwise it will knock you off your feet.” He spoke, strong and cunning in her ear. She could feel the warmth of his breath, so close.
Kat leaned her head to the side to look through the scope as well, Stephen’s face mere inches from her own. She could feel the softness of his black beard against her cheek, the movement of his lips even as he spoke tickled her neck hairs.
“And if you see an animal, make sure you point; and shoot”