With the woodshed roof finished--amazing how quickly and efficient a thing can get done when two people are working furiously at it and with tireless focus in a whole-hearted attempt to avoid having to bash in one another’s heads--and no sign of the womenfolk making their return, Bud and Einar stood staring at each other for a moment, Einar fighting to catch his breath and Kilgore, thirsty, wishing very much to go into the cabin and avail himself of the water barrel, but not being entirely sure where he stood with the wild man and thus reluctant to pass him and enter his house. Finally, thirst getting the better of him, he nodded to Einar, stepping into the cool shadows of the cabin. Einar followed, watched him drink before filling his own water carrier from the barrel. Had somehow managed to become badly dehydrated over the past several days of hiking and climbing, and still had a distance to go before he’d be caught up. Could feel it. Kilgore had crouched against the pile of stones that were destined one day to take form as cook stove and heat source for the cabin, was inspecting one of the larger, flatter pieces, turning it over and over in his hands, and Einar, not especially wanting him to begin asking questions again, held out a packet containing the remains of Liz’s last batch of traveling “pudding.”
“Getting there. First though, what do you say we slap this stove together real quick? Looks like you’ve got more than enough stones all gathered up here, and it sure would be good to have a finished stove to go with your woodshed.”
“Been meaning to get to it, but one thing or another keeps coming up to interfere, seems like. Guess this time’s as good as any. You ever done dry stone masonry before?”
“Can’t say as I have, but I’m sure you’ll tell me where to put things. Let’s have at it.”
Working with the slow deliberation characteristic of his way when at such tasks and taking solace in the details of the thing, the precision it demanded of him, Einar laid the first row of stove-stones, Kilgore, after a few minutes of observation, beginning to get a feel for what he had in mind and helping out by handing him prospective next stones, replacing them when Einar, more often than not, rejected them for not being precisely the correct fit. Stove had to be as nearly airtight as could be achieved in order to maximize its efficiency--a big deal when heating and cooking up near treeline in the dead of winter--and he knew from his previous work in the bear cave that they could come very close, given the proper attention to detail. An hour passed as they worked, another, and still Susan and Liz had not returned, the work continuing until the stove stood very nearly finished, lacking only its chimney and the large, flat stone that would comprise its top. The one Einar had previously set aside did not, when all was said and done, perform as he had hoped it would, being too thick and not quite wide enough, and he knew he could do better, given a thorough search of the scree pile up behind the cabin. Kilgore, having wanted very much to see the project brought to completion, was a bit disappointed, but did not let on. Knew he’d done a good thing in simply helping bring the stove into being, keeping Einar on task and easing his work a bit by handing him things. A good day.
Their work finished for the time, Einar--himself feeling famished despite having eaten earlier, along with everyone else--once again held the travel pudding out to Kilgore. Bud took the packet, pulled off a small lump of the sweet, soft stuff and chewed thoughtfully. “She surely does do some good cooking, don’t she? You, on the other hand…well, I tasted some of your bear-tummy kimchi, and let me tell ya, you’re probably not gonna be winning any prizes at the county fair with that one. Whew! Doubt they’d even let you in the door, actually, one they got a whiff of the stuff. But I kinda liked it, myself. Had seconds.”
“Want some now? Guess we could spare just a little bit… Liz doesn’t seem to find the stuff very much to her taste…”
“Sure! First experience didn’t kill me, so why not? To tell the truth, I find the stuff kinda pleasant, in an odd, highly fermented sort of way. The bite of it brings up some good memories, the tang...”
“Good ones, huh?”
“Well sure, mostly. Anytime you’d get a chance to sit down and eat, get time to do it…well, that’d be a good time, right?”
“Plus this stuff don’t have so much of that fishy smell, that salty, smoky stinkin’ stench of fish and garlic and rancid, un-evaporated human sweat and human dung, the taste of adrenalin like cold steel in the back of your throat because you know they’re coming, again, know what that means and if you could get out of there you would, wouldn’t you? But you can’t, not the way they’ve got you tied, can’t hardly even breathe, between the position you’re in, the heat and the stifling stench that’s coming up at you, up through the floor…you know which one I mean, don’t you Asmundson? Can probably smell it right now without even trying, can’t you?”
Blowing a great breath of air out through his nose, Einar made a conscious effort to slow his breathing, get ahold of himself and find something in the cabin he might grab onto as he could feel the world going all soft and strange and terrifyingly uncertain around him, something that might remind him of Liz, keep him connected in some way to the reality that he knew was out there, the high, clean air and spruces of his basin, but it wasn’t working. None of it was working. He needed more air, needed it real bad, but forced himself to remain still, voice rough and somewhat unsteady. “I know what you’re trying to do here. It’s not gonna work.”
“Isn’t it? Look at you, sweating, shaking, white as a sheet. Don’t tell me you don’t still think about it from time to time. Maybe lots more times than you’d like, at night sometimes when things get still and quiet and you’re all alone with your thoughts…look, man. You need to look at it. Look it in the eye. Don’t want to but you need to, need to deal with it so you can be here with her more of the time, most of the time, with them when the kid comes, rather than over there. Time to come home, man. Kinda owe them that much, don’t you think? Your family…”
Einar was on his feet, had to get out of the cabin pretty urgently and wanted Bud out, too, indicated as much by shaking his spear in the tracker’s direction and Kilgore got the message, complied. If he’d meant to start Einar reminiscing, talking about things, prod him into getting them out in the open, he had, at least for the moment, apparently failed.