The patrol had gone well with no signs of intruders or other threats. The snow depth in shadowed places had slowed his progress, but Father was determined and made it home before dawn. He shook off the moisture in the anteroom and moved to the family den.
Mother cuddled the baby. The family mourned the drowning of his twin sister, but Mother couldn’t afford that luxury and devoted her attention to the surviving baby.
They lived in a harsh place.
Harsh it surely was, but it had provided well for the family. The abundance of building materials and food had allowed Father to build a large home in the forest. Some called it a lodge, but he didn’t care what others called it. He had a big family, seven offspring, and only cared that they found comfort within its walls.
The eldest children were capable helpers and had learned their lessons well. They could fend for themselves and would probably leave next spring in search of mates and homes of their own. Things worked that way in the back country. One generation led to the next without fanfare or ceremony. The juveniles and preadolescents would stay a while longer. It pleased him that they would, not only because he needed their help to maintain the homestead, but also because he had things to teach them.
The homestead had grown substantially over the years. They had adequate water now, thanks to the new dam. The first one had been modest by comparison. However, it had served their needs for years. Needs have a way of changing, though, and the dam had to evolve too.
The dam and its reservoir offered them food and protection from the threats of winter, crucial to their survival without doubt, but also a point of pride to Father and Mother, if their maintenance efforts were any indication.
Bears and wolves became desperate as winter approached and had been known to break through a thatched-roof. Father had learned to apply a thick mud-coat to the thatch. It formed a rock-hard barrier once frozen. Nevertheless, if the thick paste was applied too early fall rains would wash it away. On the other hand, if he waited too long the mud would freeze before it could be properly applied. Father understood the predicament and bided his time.
The sky stayed clear for several days and the air grew colder in tandem. The pond’s icy slush heralded winter’s arrival. The time to secure the roof had arrived. Over two days the family worked hard to plaster the thatch. Not the baby of course he stayed in the lodge, but Mother checked on him often. The pre-teens played as much as they worked, and Father, or the older children, had to redo most of their work. No one objected because they were learning life skills.
With the thatch finished and adequate supplies in the larder, the family snuggled down for the long cold. The bounty of spring seemed distant, but together they’d survived another year of gathering, and they would all greet the spring to start afresh.
The night sky exploded with electric-blue light and the rumble of cannons. The crashing, crushing and exploding booms went on and on. The young ones, frightened by the violent noises, huddled near Mother for succor. Drops fell one here, one there, but each one closer than the last. Soon it was a deluge. The roof mud dissolved within an hour, but runoff filling the stream became the imperative.
The rain stopped. The runoff didn’t, and soon the stream became a torrent. The water probed the dam relentlessly, until it found a weakness and nibbled at the flaw like a squirrel gnawing an acorn for the prize within.
The family did what they had to do, and robbed their winter wood supply, but it wasn’t enough. Father and the two eldest children headed to the woods to fell trees. Big Brother took the lead searching for appropriately sized trees, not an easy task in an old-growth forest. He knew of a stand of quaking aspen that was far from home, but offered the best chance for success. Mother and the other children did what they could to stem the destruction while waiting.
Father returned with enough wood to shore up the dam. He was overwhelmed with fear when he found Mother gone, but he couldn’t succumb to it. They had to stop the leaks. Father ushered the family into the lodge when their task was accomplished. They were frightened and troubled by Mother’s absence, the baby most of all. Big Sister comforted the baby as if he was her own, but she lacked milk. The baby would join his twin.
They lived in a harsh place.
The family rested in the lodge for the day. Father was determined to re-mud the roof before it was too late. Big Sister stayed with the baby while the rest worked hard through the moonlit night. Night was safer. The reservoir’s slush was reforming, but mud could still be made.
The bear watched from the shadows, unseen by the preoccupied family. Bears are stealthy when they want to be. And, he wanted to be stealthy—any one of the family would be a good pre-hibernation meal. He carefully closed the gap between them.
The family was nearly done for the day when a warning signal forced them back to the lodge. It was unclear which of them had raised the alarm, probably one of the juveniles playing.
Mother had expected danger and prepared for it, but she hadn’t prepared for the log that destroyed her foothold. A lightning flash exposed her young ones for an instant before the current took her. The water was relentless. She bounced and rolled in its froth and wrestled for every breath as the stream carted her to the river. A strong swimmer, she struggled to escape, but the water wouldn’t cooperate until an eddy pushed her to a bank. She had no idea how far she’d come, but she knew the way home—upstream.
The swimming and long walk had tired Mother, and she ached for the comfort of the lodge. Her fatigue vanished at the sight of the bear’s maneuvers. From the far side of the pond the family couldn’t hear her calls. She had to get closer, but fallen trees blocked the path. She climbed a dead trunk and saw the bear getting ready to attack. Having no choice she jumped as far as she could, cleared ten feet of debris, and landed in the pond. Her long tail slapped the water with great force. A reverberation, as loud as a shotgun, warned her family, as she knew it would, and frightened the bear away, as she hoped it would.
Father greeted her first, nose to nose, in the anteroom. His one and only mate had returned to him—endorphins flowed. The children waited for her to dry off and enter the family den. They surrounded her, nuzzling, sniffing and nosing her body to express their love as only beavers can do.
They lived in a harsh place, and in a good home full of love and promise.
David P. Cantrell © 2015, all rights reserved. David P. Cantrell is a contributing member of the EWI staff.