It was the shrill call of a dipper.
That’s what woke Heather on the twentieth morning after Wesley left on his hunting trip.
She recognized the sound right away, flashing back to their first afternoon there in the mountains …
“Up there,” Wes had said, pointing to a spot overlooking the babbling stream where his wife and daughter waded. “That’s where we’ll build our cabin.”
“I don’t know, Wes. Shouldn’t we settle in closer to town,” Heather had said.
They were city folks, with no business setting out on their own.
Wes frowned. “We didn’t come all this way to Colorado, leave behind everything in Boston, to live in town! Did we, Heidi?”
“No way!” The little girl splashed and giggled.
A dipper shrieked upstream, and the three Watsons turned to watch the bird.
“See, our new friend thinks it’s a great idea, too” Wesley said.
To Heather it sounded more like a warning
By and by, the weather grew colder and silence crept up on their new mountain home. When the first snow fell in October, the cabin was ready just enough to keep them from freezing to death.
Over the next several weeks, Wes worked night and day to shore up the structure, and it was tight and sound by Christmas.
But the meager supplies they brought with them were running low, and Wesley had to trek into town every couple of weeks to buy more food. It was no mean feat with fresh snow tumbling down what seemed like every morning.
The days were short, and the nights were colder than any Heather could remember. It seemed like winter might never end, and she was sure they had made a mistake.
Then, one night in late February, Wes straggled home with a sack of oats, some jerky … and an idea.
“Met a fella in Hawthorn this afternoon says he can take me up the mountain. Teach me how to track deer … and bears.”
“Why would you want to do that?” Heather shivered at the thought.
“Why … for meat. And for fur. We can’t depend on the general store all the time. Heck, I like to not got there and back today. We have to learn how to live on our own.”
Heather had been more worried than ever. “Maybe we should think about going back — .”
Anger flashed across Wesley’s face, and he held up a hand. “We’re staying. And I’m going. Tomorrow morning.”
“Heather, it will be fine. I’ll only be gone a week, and we’ll be that much closer to spring.”
She could see there was no talking him out of it.
“Alright. We’ll be here waiting.”
It felt all wrong in her heart. They were city folks.
One week became two, and then nearly three.
March was waning, and the world was still frozen solid.
And Wes was still gone.
If he didn’t come home soon, Heather and Heidi would run out of food. She would have broken her promise to her husband, headed into town if she could have navigated the mountain pass.
Then … the dipper’s glorious squeal.
Heather had sat bolt upright in bed and listened, to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The bird called again, and she jumped up, ran to the door.
“What is it, Mommy?” Heidi asked, rubbing her eyes as she stepped into the morning light beside her mother.
“Spring is here!” Heather beamed.
They listened together for several minutes, and Heather slowly figured out that the call was coming from higher up on the mountain, and that there were several birds chattering to each other.
Maybe Wes was right. They had made it through winter! Maybe they could live in the mountains after all.
Heather’s smile faded as she remembered that dippers congregated around water … yet all around her, the ground was still covered in snow, icicles hanging from the eaves of the house.
She looked down to the stream below, frozen and empty of life.
A dipper screamed again.
Heather stepped out into the sunlight and looked up the mountain. Even as she turned, she heard the popping and rushing.
A river of melting winter snow and muddy earth and broken trees rushed toward a small plateau a few hundred yards above the cabin.
Dippers hopped along the splashing, icy puddles forming there before cascading down the slope in her direction.
They were city folks, and Heather was going to have to break her promise to Wes.