For the first several hundred yards of the descent Einar and Liz had to carry the ewe; with the terrain so steep and rocky, there was simply no way around it. Difficult work for the two of them, Liz somewhat off balance and with somewhat reduced lung capacity due to the growing child and Einar struggling with arms that lacked, for the moment, a good bit of their usual strength and range of motion, his own breathing a painful and somewhat uncertain thing, dealing as he was with at least two broken ribs. He wasn’t sure. Might be more. Moving silently, not wanting to waste any breath, each of them did their part to carry the weight of the sheep, Einar in front on the downhill side, steering them, taking most of the weight. Out of the rocks, then, they were out of the rocks and traveling once more over a carpet of mixed spruce and fir needles, still steep and riddled in places with deadfall trees that had to be climbed over or gone around, but the change allowed them to lower the sheep to the ground and do some dragging, rest themselves somewhat from the hard work of carrying the creature suspended between them. A change which came not a moment too soon for Einar, whose breathing had taken on an alarmingly shallow rapidity as his body struggled to get enough air without moving the injured ribs too much, largely an involuntary adaptation, as he knew, when he thought about it, that he had better be trying for deeper, more full breaths at least some of the time, lest he end up with a serious lung infection in a few days. Hadn’t possessed the energy to spare on such thoughts or efforts while in the middle of the hauling, though, so had ended up in the pattern of shallow breathing that had very nearly caused him to pass out, a time or two.
Lowering the ewe to the spruce needles there at the end of the rocks, preparing to drag the creature for a while, he sank to his knees for a moment of rest, consciously focusing on his breathing, attempting to slow it, to fully expand his lungs, face going all white and drawn with the effort and the hurt of it. Helped though, allowed his heart to back off some from its frantic and not entirely efficient pounding and gave the world back some of its color, the desperate, fading black and white and grey easing some, greening up; he was ready to go on, stood. Liz had already rigged the sheep’s legs with lengths of paracord to ease the dragging, handed Einar his pair--tied together in in the center to form a loop; she was really thinking--and offered him some water, which he gladly accepted.
The next phase of the descent involved a good bit more braking and pulling and desperate hanging-on-lest-the-critter-take-off-down-the-mountain-without-us than it did actual hauling, but it proved to be rather strenuous work nonetheless, the heavy animal several times sliding very nearly out of their control and coming up short against the uphill side of a fallen tree, forcing them to drag it back uphill by several feet before they could disentangle it and continue their descent. Einar, finally tiring of burning his hands on the thin cords and seeing that Liz was having equal trouble maintaining her grip, stopped and added spruce branch “handles” to their hauling rig, wrapping the center of each looped cord around and around a short section of branch to give them something to hang onto, and after that, the task proved somewhat easier. Still, it was well past dusk when at last they began recognizing the trees around them, below them, saw the little clearing with its single stark-alone mostly-dead limber pine, and knew that they had reached the area of the spring. Moving with an almost dreamlike slowness--they were carrying again, the ground once more having grown too rough for dragging--they headed for the spring, lowered their burden beside its little pool--no words needed, acting simultaneously, as if sharing the same thought--and drank, crouching, cupping water in their hands and gulping it down with a parched fervor, having run out a good while previously and being badly in need of some hydration. Liz found her feet again first, went to Einar, who was still crouched by the water, swaying, appearing near sleep though in truth he was wide awake and simply using all of his energy to gather himself for the remainder of the journey, searching for a little more strength, and she lifted him, helped him to stand, not far now, we’re almost there, and they were moving again, Liz in the lead this time, sometimes dragging and sometimes carrying the ewe as the terrain required.
Full dark when at last they reached the cabin clearing, and leaving the ewe just out front of the woodshed--and Einar with it, crouching, head bowed almost until it rested on his knees, arms hanging limply at his sides, for he seemed to have reached the last of his strength in achieving the cabin--Liz hurried over to the outdoor firepit where she had left some sticks and kindling stacked after breakfast that morning, working to ignite a small blaze to illuminate the area and ease the tasks that still lay ahead of them before bed, hopefully also giving her the opportunity to cook up some of that sheep meat, once they got the carcass safely hung for the night. Brought back to awareness by the flickering light of the fire Einar was on his feet when Liz next looked in his direction, stood balancing against a tree and scanning the timber in the growing light of the flames, seeking an appropriate spot to hang the ewe for the night. Found it in the crossbar they had rigged when tanning the deer hide and that of the last ewe, dragged their quarry over beneath the two trees as Liz added a few more sticks to the fire, straining against the weight and resting a hand wearily against one of the spruce trunks as he tied one end of the cord to a stick, threw it up and over the crosspiece. Was about to begin hauling the ewe up into the tree single-handedly--could have done it, but would have had quite a struggle, seeing as the critter weighed a good bit more than he did--when Liz joined him, and together they raised it, securing the rope to a stub of a spruce branch once the animal was well out of reach of nighttime scavengers.
They retreated to the cabin, then, Liz’s grand plans of a roast sheep supper put on hold by an immense weariness that seemed to have seized hold of both of them after the exertions of the day, bed seeming far more desirable than even the best of meals. Liz did, though, manage to snatch a good-sized slice of liver for herself and the baby before turning in for the night, would have offered one to Einar as well and done her best to see that he ate it, had he not already passed out on the bear hide. Literally. Couldn’t wake him when she tried, needed to do it, because she wanted to check his foot, change the dressings if they needed it--how could they not need it, after all that climbing?--but hardly wished to attempt any such thing while he was sleeping. Or unconscious, or whatever he was. Not comfortable, for one thing; she could tell by the strained shallowness of his breath that his ribs were troubling him, arms and shoulders positioned oddly as if they were adding to the discomfort, which she did not doubt after the long and strenuous descent with their quarry. She just shook her head, cleaned up a bit by the light of a candle and joined him--at least we have the sheep. We’ll eat well in the morning, and are well on our way to having more food and warm hides for the winter--adjusting the bear hide so that it covered them both against the growing chill of the night.
Einar stirred at the movement of the hide, opened an eye and sat up slowly, a bit dizzily, glaring around at the candle light on the walls, searching for water and finding it there by the bed, the cabin’s interior still lit by the candle which Liz had been about to extinguish. Everything hurt, the restriction in his breathing, the way his shoulders felt, wrists bandaged and bleeding--they’d been at it again; he could feel it, remembered it, and he supposed that meant they’d soon be back--trying hard to bring back images that he would just as well not have dealt with just then, not while Liz was there, not with them seeming suddenly so fresh, immediate, real, and his first inclination was to leave the cabin, find himself a spot somewhere out there to curl up for the night, someplace where his restlessness would not disturb Liz, where he would not risk waking up unsure whether she was friend or foe but she took his hand--would she do that if she knew?--told him stay, it’s cold out there…and he did, reluctantly, Liz working to ease some of the soreness from his shoulders and back, and the two of them finally slept.
In the night Einar dreamt of sheep, sheep up in the rocks moving with their incredible graceful ease, hopping from ledge to ledge and finding purchase on the narrowest little rim of granite, he moving right along with them, agile and unconcerned about any possibility of falling, jumping lightly from ledge to ledge, skipping across the peaks, the sheep in the tree outside awaiting their attention in the morning, waiting to be turned into meat, food, sheep boiling into a rich, thick stew on the nearly-completed stove, nettles, onions, a wonderful aroma, steaks roasting and crackling over the fire, sheep in his stomach, giving him strength, and he slept with a slight smile on his face, elbow pressed into the hungry hollow of his belly against the coming of morning, against the time when he might find himself able to partake of such a meal. To cook it. He’d fix it for the two of them, as soon as morning came…